Ah, the start of a new year. Time to reflect, recharge, set resolutions—and for accountants, time to say goodbye to any semblance of a social life until the daffodils push up in the spring.
In our profession, most of us accept the busy season as a fact of life. You don’t go to the doctor during the busy season. You don’t schedule a haircut during the busy season. You don’t go to happy hour with your friends. Your kids might not see you. You hunker down, tough it out, and get through.
But COVID-19 is forcing us all to reconsider.
Until recently, mental health has been somewhat of a taboo topic in accounting. Our profession is known for being rigorous and demanding. We deal in regulations, numbers, and data—not in feelings. But as the pandemic drags on, many accountants have come to the realization they can’t keep living like this. As a recovering-overachiever-turned-executive-coach, I’ve not only felt this myself, I’ve watched my clients grapple with it too.
Ironically, busy season is the time we should be most focused on our mental health. “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day—unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour,” as the Zen proverb goes. But let’s be honest, most of us barely have enough time to sleep during the busy season, let alone meditate.
That’s why it’s important for us to dig deeper. What’s keeping us all so overwhelmed? Are there things within our industry we can change to make the busy season, if not blissful, at least bearable? While I recognize we can’t transform things overnight, change has to start somewhere. Perhaps it can start within ourselves. Below, I’ve outlined some of the most common unhealthy patterns of behaviors I see in our profession and how we can begin to overcome them.
I sometimes teach a webinar for Gusto called “Is Your Leadership an Asset or a Liability?” (login required). One thing I like to share is the Universal Model of Leadership, which outlines effective and ineffective leadership behaviors. Whether you’re in a position of authority or not, ineffective thought patterns and behaviors can lead to poor mental health for you and the people around you—and this is doubly true during the busy season. Under stress, we regress. Unfortunately, the field of accounting often incentivizes these patterns, making them even more difficult to let go of.
Here are the three most prevalent toxic patterns I find in the clients I work with. Keep in mind, most of us have a go-to, automatic unhealthy way of being. I have also included strategies to help overcome them. No matter what your pattern is, the key is always going to be: Look within.
If you’re working in a matrix reporting environment, you’re reporting to a lot of different people and no one person is your advocate. You are also serving a variety of clients. When you’re just starting out in your career, this can be overwhelming—you want to do a good job and get noticed, so it’s tempting to overpromise and stretch yourself too far. It’s a strategy that’s doomed to fail—you either don’t manage to complete everything on time, or you do, but it comes at a great personal cost. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of people-pleasing: putting other people’s needs and expectations before your own.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. For many of us, this kind of people-pleasing behavior started early. Maybe you were a middle child, had divorced parents who expected you to play referee, or you felt in the shadow of another big personality (e.g. a superstar sibling). Now that you are grown up, you are often holding back what is within. You might hesitate to share your ideas because you fear others won’t like them.
Break the pattern: Look inside
Pleasing others might give you a temporary boost, but it sabotages your fulfillment in the long run. That’s why it’s critical to take a step back and recognize what your needs really are.
An addiction to doing things for others might be masking something else—for instance, maybe there’s something going on at home that makes you want to remain at work. Or it might just be a role you’ve been playing for a long time. If you’ve always been the person who rescues people or picks up extra work, it can be difficult to relinquish that identity. Recovering people-pleasers can shift their inner narrative from “People have to like me” or “It’s selfish to put my needs first” to “I am not responsible for how others feel” or “I need to put my oxygen mask on first.”
Consider: What’s the first thought or feeling that comes to mind when you feel a need to check your work email? Were you trying to live up to a certain expectation? To fulfill a role? Perhaps this is a good place to start practicing healthier boundaries. For instance, you could decide not to look at your email inbox after a certain time each night and reclaim that time for something restorative—whether that’s spending time with your family, engaging in a hobby, or getting an extra hour of sleep.
2. Controlling behavior
This type of behavior is all about lack of trust. Controlling people tell themselves the story that they can’t trust others—but look inside, and you’ll often find they don’t trust their own self or the external world. Psychologists call this projection: displacing your feelings on another. This could have its roots in childhood. Perhaps you grew up in an environment where there was chaos or life felt out of control. Many of us are feeling this right now. I agree with the Nike executive who said, “Last year has been tough – we’re all human! We lived through a traumatic event!”
We’re still living through a traumatic event and many of us feel a strong need to take control now. Alas, it’s impossible to control another; all we can control is our own actions and reactions.
Controlling behavior can manifest in things like micromanaging your direct reports, or simply a lack of trust in your colleagues’ work—an incessant need to double-check and recheck things. Though you might think you’re just holding everyone to a high standard, you’re likely just introducing inefficiencies. More importantly, you’re probably eroding morale on your team.
Break the pattern: Identify your filters
We bring our whole self to work, and that self is informed by all our past experiences. If there are things in your background that make it difficult to trust people or have made you feel out of control, it’s only natural that you would cling to control where you can find it. Recognizing that part of yourself is the first step to healing it.
One tool I like to use to illustrate this idea is a pair of sunglasses covered in stickers that represent different formative things that have shaped my life and my perspective. I’ve got a band-aid because I had a very disruptive childhood—my mom is mentally ill and was homeless for a period, and my dad was an alcoholic. I’ve also got some flags because I moved to Monaco to be an au pair at the age of 19, and then years later, I went to Italy on my own. All these things have shaped my perspective and how I view the world.
Try to identify your own filters—the things that color your everyday experiences. What messages did you internalize in childhood? What formative career experiences and relationships with authority have you carried into your current position? How might your past experiences be affecting the way you engage at work? Holding space for these parts of yourself can help you begin to heal and let you make room for new, more helpful beliefs.
Accountants have many positive qualities—we tend to be organized, meticulous, and attentive to detail. But left unchecked, a strength can just as easily turn into a weakness. It’s not a bad thing to have reliable financial statements, to create accurate tax returns, or to get your work done in good time. The problem is when you start to equate your work output with your self-worth. You are so much more than those letters after your name.
Early in my career as a tax accountant, I remember being so proud to turn in my work, only to get it back with all my errors highlighted. It was a big blow to my self-confidence—I thought I was smart and getting corrected felt like an attack on that core belief. But if I hadn’t viewed my work as proof of my intelligence, I would have been better able to correct my mistakes and move forward.
Break the pattern: Separate your work from your worth
Many of us cling to perfectionism because we derive some benefit from it. It pushes us towards excellence, forcing us to be meticulous and precise in our work—or at least, we think it does. In reality, it prevents us from adopting a growth mindset and the flexibility to learn and change over time. When we realize we’ve made a mistake, our sense of self is threatened. If we really look inside, we might see something much deeper.
Maybe your parents had high expectations, and from a young age, you were pushed to excel at school and in extracurriculars. And while there’s nothing wrong with achievement, many of us learned to equate performance with love. As adults, we’ve become so used to chasing achievement at the expense of our own needs, we don’t even recognize we’re doing it.
So how do we overcome our perfectionistic tendencies? Recognize that your outputs are not personality traits. Making a mistake does not make you ‘bad,’ or ‘sloppy,’ or ‘unintelligent’—it just makes you human. And you have inherent value as a human being, regardless of what you do.
Engaging in a mindfulness practice can help hone this skill. Many meditations teach you to watch your thoughts and feelings as if they were clouds passing through the sky, and you don’t have to actually meditate to benefit from this practice. Can you teach yourself to see those feelings as separate from yourself, and not part of your identity? When that perfectionist impulse arises, can you teach yourself to think, “This isn’t me. It’s just how I’m feeling”? If so, you’ll find yourself much more able to control it, and set it aside.
Think it’s a hard profession? Think again.
We should all examine our habits and take steps to improve our mental health so we can live happy, abundant lives in the busy season and beyond. However, it’s important to recognize that the culture of accounting in its current form keeps many of us stuck in toxic patterns—and in the long run, that needs to change.
The reason I start with personal action is because it’s important for us to imagine what’s possible. Something I often hear from people I work with is, “it’s just a really hard profession”—and while I don’t doubt their experience, I also see this as a limiting belief. Think about how many organizations wanted to go paperless before COVID-19 but never got around to it. When everyone had to go remote, they figured it out quickly. I truly believe that what we hold in our consciousness manifests. If we say it’s a hard profession, it’s always going to be a hard profession. Remember the filter and those glasses: When you accept the “fact” that busy season is difficult, you’ll look for evidence to support that idea.
We can look to similar fields to help guide this transition. Law, for instance, has made great strides recently—researchers have put out reports on substance abuse and other mental health concerns among attorneys, and the American Bar Association has shared recommendations to help lawyers manage their mental health through COVID-19. As it currently stands, research on mental health in accounting is nearly nonexistent. Let’s be honest: Accountants crave data when making decisions. If we could get some good data on the state of mental health in our profession, we’d be in a much better position to address these concerns systematically. That’s the only way the busy season is going to get better: if we stop treating it as a necessary evil and start seeing it as a problem to be solved.