Date posted: 09/10/2019 10 min read

Don’t let burnout put out your spark

Accountants are compelled to get things right, but pursuit of the perfect can leave conscientious CAs vulnerable to burnout.

In Brief

  • Burnout combines chronic exhaustion with feeling disconnected to work.
  • Perfectionists and workaholics are top of the list of those most likely to suffer from burnout.
  • To reduce the chance of burnout, be realistic about workloads, try to delegate where possible and ask for help if you need it.

By Fiona Smith

Johanna McCartney CA hasn’t had a holiday this year – and she is feeling it. It is not that she can’t take a break, she could, but she has a nagging worry that she might let others down.

“The team are fine without me for a week or two. You can put a lot of pressure on yourself that the business can’t run without you, but it can and it does,” she admits.

McCartney, an associate director at BlueRock professional services firm in Melbourne, says she knows that sort of conscientiousness can result in burnout – a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

About 5-7% of the workforce suffers from burnout, according to Michael Leiter, professor of organisational psychology at Deakin University in Melbourne. “The rate seems to be increasing. It’s part of the intensity of work that people are putting up with these days,” he says.

Leiter says burnout is a combination of factors that create a career crisis. “It is a particular syndrome that combines chronic exhaustion with a cynical disconnection with your work – you used to like it, but now you can’t get excited about it anymore,” he says.

“Then, there is a lost sense of efficacy or accomplishment, like you have just lost confidence that you are doing good work.”

McCartney’s justification for staying at her desk was that other people were on leave and she was waiting for a job vacancy to be filled.

“I should not have waited for everything to be perfect before I took leave,” she admits. McCartney was looking forward to taking the whole of November off to travel overseas, but she manages everyday stress by disconnecting from emails when leaving the office, walking to and from work, and exercising three to four times each week – including during the 30-minute lunchtime sports sessions she organises for the BlueRock staff.

Johanna McCartney CAPicture: Johanna McCartney CA.

Burnout or depression?

When it comes to predicting the kind of people who are most likely to experience burnout, perfectionists and workaholics are top of the list, according to Gabriela Tavella, a PhD candidate at the UNSW School of Psychiatry. Tavella has been researching burnout with Professor Gordon Parker from the Black Dog Institute.

Dealing with burnout is not straightforward if the underlying cause is a personality style, she says. “That is a bit more difficult to tackle if that is who you are as a person.”

While manageable amounts of stress can enhance motivation and focus, burnout differs by being more long-term and debilitating.

“Stress is when you’re in that fight or flight mode,” Parker explained on Australia’s ABC earlier this year. “Your adrenaline is pouring out and you’re fired up and you’re doing things and you’re on the go.

“Burnout is when that fire is no longer present... your eyes are looking a bit blank and your mind is a little bit blank and you’re not performing as well as you should be.”

The condition has been in the news since its inclusion into the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases in May this year.

There is some crossover in the symptoms of burnout and depression, and it’s an area Tavella and Parker are keen to explore in their new study, which aims to clarify the nature of burnout.

“We need to know whether they’re the same thing or different, or whether burnout leads to depression,” she says.

How to improve the work environment

Leiter says burnout occurs when people are exhausted all the time and lack that sense of control and meaning at work. This is exacerbated by an increase in the administrative burden that comes with more paperwork and reporting.

Leiter has been looking at ways the work environment can be improved to reduce the incidence of burnout. Six areas to consider are workflow, decision-making involvement, reward structures, community, fairness, and congruence with your values.

“So, if any of those areas are out of whack for people, then it is going to push them away from being engaged and towards being more burned out.”

Leiter suggests people ask themselves which of those factors are important to them and what they can change. Is there anything about the job they can improve? Can the job be crafted to remove some of the things they dislike? “That’s the kind of stuff that an individual can do on their own,” he says.

A survey of 1000 professionals in the US by Deloitte back in 2015 reported 77% of respondents had experienced burnout in their current job, and the burnout rate rose to 84% among those who admit they are not passionate about their job.

The factors blamed for burnout were almost equally split between a lack of support or recognition from leadership, unrealistic deadlines or results expectations, and consistently working long hours or on weekends.

Taking responsibility

Some employers have wellbeing programs to encourage people to speak openly about their mental health. But admitting to burnout can be tricky for people who feel they may be harshly judged.

PwC is skilling up its staff in “mental health first aid” and within 12 months aims to have 3% of its workforce confident about supporting their colleagues.

Director of PwC’s Wellness Centre of Excellence in Melbourne, Kate Connors, is the in-house psychologist for the partner group. She says the firm wants to create an open culture where safe and effective conversations about mental health can take place, and people feel supported and encouraged to seek professional help when required.

“When someone is experiencing burnout, it’s really important to help them prioritise their own health and self-care,” she says.

Taking care of yourself

Christchurch-based accountant Jamil Guliyev CA is concerned about the rate of burnout among accountants. He says he experienced it a couple of times himself early in his career.

“It starts slowly and you don’t realise that you are being burned out until it has happened,” he says.

“You become a victim of your own perfectionism to some extent and you keep doing more and more and more. And then you start to be defined by your work.

“You become a victim of your own perfectionism to some extent and you keep doing more and more and more.”
Jamil Guliyev CA

“You ignore the other parts of your life and your family and your social commitments, your hobbies and interests, and you become increasingly focused on one singular thing, which is your work – and that becomes a bit of an obsession.

“That is probably the biggest warning that you have burnout happening.”

Guliyev says he understands why many accountants find it difficult to admit they are feeling the strain.

Many accountants are high-performance people who, at the same time, tend to suffer imposter syndrome, he believes. That means they secretly and erroneously fear they will be discovered to be a bit of a fraud.

“For that exact reason, many people would not complain or say they are burned out. They wouldn’t seek help from others. In fact, a lot of people wear their busy-ness as a badge of pride.”

He recommends people who feel they are burning out step back and consider what quality of work is actually expected and if what they are doing adds value, or if they are being perfectionistic for the sake of it.

“The most important thing is to get back in touch with what makes your life meaningful,” Guliyev says. For some that may be sport, or spending time with loved ones. For Guliyev, that’s enjoying “the finer things in life” like the opera, performing arts and studying.

Jamil Guliyev CA Picture: Jamil Guliyev CA.

How can being civil reduce workplace exhaustion?

Leiter says that, in many ways, our society has become more civil over time and this means we have greater expectations about how we are treated.

“We have raised the bar quite a bit,” he says. “It really irritates people when they do feel disrespected or mistreated at work.”

Dramas at work are exhausting and emotional and interfere with people’s capacity to rest, he says.

Leiter is engaged in a project of raising the civility of Victorian hospital network Western Health, getting people to practise being respectful to each other. “We’re working to address burnout by improving workplace civility in places where people sometimes are actively rude, discourteous and disrespectful to each other and other places where they’re just not connecting.

“People want active engagement with each other and it makes a real difference.

“My short description of it is that we are doing family therapy with work groups. You can’t completely eliminate all sarcasm from workplaces, but you can increase the balance between positive and negative [interactions].”

A similar project by Leiter in the Canadian health system resulted in reduced levels of exhaustion and cynicism, even though workloads did not change.

Mental health first aid

Catherine Kennedy FCAPicture: Catherine Kennedy FCA.

Helping people handle the stress can only go so far if the demands of work ratchet up endlessly. Catherine Kennedy FCA, manager of segment support for CA ANZ, says she is increasingly hearing that members are being asked to “do more with less”.

Kennedy has seen evidence that boards, in becoming more risk-averse, are placing increasing demands on their finance teams. New regulation is also putting pressure on smaller practices that don’t have the infrastructure to manage those demands.

“There is only a certain amount of resilience that is going to address the continually increasing demands,” she says.

“There is only a certain amount of resilience that is going to address the continually increasing demands.”
Catherine Kennedy FCA

“At a certain point, you have to ensure that the demands placed on you are reasonable and achievable. If the goalposts are being shifted constantly, it’s difficult to retain that sense of your own ability to achieve meeting your targets and being able to deliver.”

The burnout checklist

  • Do you feel exhausted all the time?
  • Are you finding it hard to remember things?
  • Do you have problems concentrating or making decisions?
  • Have you started to feel emotionally detached from others?
  • Does your work seem pointless?
  • Are you experiencing depression?
  • Is your sleep disturbed?
  • Are you experiencing headaches, nausea, changes in appetite, decreases in immunity?

Control your workload

  • Ensure deadlines and expectations are realistic
  • Delegate where possible and appropriate
  • Say no when you can’t take on more work
  • Ask for help/training/support to meet expectations
  • Consider what aspect of your job is the source of your stress
  • Negotiate adjustments to address this
  • Can you reframe ‘stressors’ as challenges from which you can learn?
  • Reflect on your values and goals and how your work aligns with these

Tips for self-carePrioritise your sleep to handle stress better

  • Watch your intake of alcohol and caffeine as that can affect sleep
  • Exercise regularly for physical and mental fitness
  • Create supportive networks within your team
  • Make time to do things you enjoy
  • Turn off phone notifications and even emails when you leave the office

Read more:

CA Wellbeing Australia

CA ANZ recognises that our members can work in stressful environments and sometimes face challenging situations. We aim to connect our members to the resources and information they may need to maintain good mental health.

Access wellbeing resources