Date posted: 10/02/2022 8 min read

Overcoming burnout in accounting

Burnout is widespread among workers, not least those in professional services. CAs discuss what small to medium-sized accounting firms can do to prevent their workers ending up depleted.

In Brief

  • An estimated 11% of Australian employees are experiencing very-high degree burnout
  • Many accounting firms want to know how to prevent, treat and combat burnout
  • Support is available for leaders who want to improve work culture for staff

By Oriana Gorrin

Dealing with less-than-ideal work from home arrangements while trying to maintain productivity and maintain some semblance of work-life balance. Sound familiar?

The challenges of recent times have lowered the energy and motivation of our workforce. As a result, an estimated 11% of Australian employees are experiencing very-high degree burnout, according to global management and consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s Reimagine Work: Employee Survey – data that is likely to be underrepresented.

“Burnout” has been defined by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO), as an “occupational phenomenon” – not a medical condition, as was previously stated in the 11th Revision of the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Specifically, it is now defined as the result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The phenomenon of burnout has become so widespread among workers – including those in financial services – that last year consultant Heather Smith FCA facilitated a panel discussion on the topic.

Held in Brisbane, Overcoming burnout: Things SMPs Can Do To Help saw John Knight FCA, founder and managing director of BusinessDEPOT, Cameo Ashe CA, virtual CFO and co-founder of Lemonade Beach, and Annie Qian CA, a senior associate at EY, discuss with Smith what small to medium-sized accounting firms can do to prevent their workers ending up depleted and exhausted.

Overcoming burnout: Things SMPs Can Do To HelpPicture: Heather Smith FCA facilitated a panel discussion on Overcoming burnout: Things SMPs Can Do To Help.

Burnout in accounting

The panellists discussed how in the early days of the pandemic many employees felt pressured to overperform. Some found it difficult to cope with the requirements of their jobs while working in a time of uncertainty, and were left with feelings of anxiety, stress, and related mental health issues.

“I felt this need to prove myself for working hard and working long hours,” admitted Qian.

Ashe agreed, saying: “A lot of the times we try to over-deliver to clients, and we want them to see us as superhumans when we are just humans.”

Finding balance

For accountants, practising meaningful delegation and reinstating a healthy balance between work and life can mitigate the effects of their high-achieving agenda, the panellists agreed.

Prioritisation, meaningful interconnections, and reassurance can also go a long way.

Never underestimate the power of routines to boost performance and confidence, highlighted Qian. “I found my own routine in the morning and I need to go the gym before work,” she said. “Otherwise, my day does not feel right.”

Trying to break the cycles contributing to burnout is by far the most effective and powerful approach, argued Knight. Practicing techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can lead to new, healthier habits – potentially replacing those leading to workplace exhaustion.

“I have been using breathing exercises that came out of our company’s wellness training sessions,” said Qian. “The one with a specific tempo to it helps with a sense of detachment.”

Knight said he used a mindfulness app. “Another big thing for me is getting up before the sun comes up every morning, which also involves exercise,” he said.


Breaking down communication barriers using empathy and emotion can also help prevent conflict and avoid disengagement from clients and employees, said Knight, whose firm BusinessDEPOT took a collaborative and innovative approach to burnout in 2021.

“The first thing we did in one of our meetings was to facilitate conversations and listen to both parties,” he explained. Sometimes, promoting openness and honesty of communication is the best answer, he clarified. “That gives everyone permission to say, ‘No’, so they don’t have to put themselves out there all the time.”

For example, when needing to communicate critical information, or discuss a sensitive matter, Knight prefers to get personal. “If I need to ring someone, I’ll do it [as opposed to emailing],” he said. “I did it today. By having an actual conversation, I wrapped empathy around that assistance. The client knew that I cared.”

Support from the top

All panellists agreed those in leadership roles should consider engaging the help of external support programs to help manage staff mental health and wellness expectations.

“Counting on U”, the Deakin University-led mental health first-aid course for accountants, for example, provides training around how to offer flexible and strengths-based approaches to work and is offered as complimentary continuing professional development (CPD) for eligible chartered accountants.

Ashe believes the message should be about working smarter, not harder.

“One of the big things I’ve got out of the training program is that it’s all about leading the person to assistance or to developing whatever they need, rather than you having to do the work,” she said.

Knight agreed. “It shouldn’t be difficult to give a little bit of flexibility and freedom, so I think that really comes from leadership and that culture permeating down,” he said. “Leaders have to display this stuff as well.”

“It shouldn't be difficult to give a little bit of flexibility and freedom, so I think that really comes from leadership and that culture permeating down. Leaders have to display this stuff as well.”
John Knight FCA

Let’s get interactive

Many accounting firms are also actively investing in tech solutions to help with was workplace issue. Apps such as Headspace and Mojo offer guidance on how to build healthier work patterns and boost team morale, for example.

“CA ANZ also offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is free to all the members during this pandemic period,” said Smith. “You can have free access to the CA ANZ library and all the audiobooks on your phone.”

Smith added she had tried clinical and corporate psychologist Dr Jodie Lowinger’s The Mind Strength Method: Four steps to curb anxiety conquer worry and build resilience’.

Read more:

Extinguishing auditor burnout

Auditors are prime candidates for burnout, but some accounting firms are dealing with mental health head on.

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The Mind Strength Method: Four steps to curb anxiety, conquer worry and build resilience

Offers a practical method to overcome anxiety and fear-driven thoughts and behaviours.

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