The work/life/study balance can be tough for students at the best of times, but it’s particularly challenging during exams and at busy times of the year. Kirsty Lilley, mental health expert at CABA, shares her advice on avoiding burnout.
Don’t compare yourself to others
Be aware of the ‘comparative mind’. We live in a very competitive society, which drives that natural comparative mind we all have. It’s designed to see someone else doing something we like and feel motivated to do the same, but it’s been hijacked, particularly by social media – we see all these shiny examples of someone else’s success, but we don’t get the back story. And without that perspective, we start to compare ourselves unfavourably with the next person. We should really only be comparing ourselves with our past selves; recognising our achievements to date. The fact that you’re in a position to take an accountancy exam means you’ve already achieved a huge amount in your life, and you already have the skills to get there.
Use the body to support the mind
It’s important to recognise that physical and mental health are interrelated. Students who are doing a lot of cognitive work will be using a lot of brain processes, and are likely to need a lot more sugar and glucose from healthy, nutritious foods in order to integrate new learning. Make sure you’re hydrated, too: we know from studies in schools that young people are really affected if they are dehydrated. The other thing is movement: if we sit at our desks for long periods, we tend to get quite stiff, and that sends a feedback message to the brain that there’s a threat – if you think about when we’re in fight or flight mode, we tense the muscles in anticipation of a threat. So movement and mood are very interrelated.
Integrate rest periods into your day. People who are very driven tend to think, ‘I’ll just hammer this for the next three hours, then I’ll collapse on the bed for an hour.’ But we need to be thinking about integrated self-care. That means building periods of rest into the day, even if it’s just five or 10 minutes away from the screen: go outside, do a breathing exercise, allow the data to download. When we’re tired, we make poor decisions on coping strategies too – we’re more likely to reach for a glass of wine or sugary food because we can’t be bothered to make that extra effort. It’s worth setting a timer or using an app to remind yourself to take a break and step away.
Learn what self-care looks like
We all know the theory about looking after ourselves – we know we should exercise, get good sleep – but what I’m interested in is what stops us doing it, what the barrier is. So allow yourself a moment to think about what self-care means to you. What is your fear or resistance? For a lot of people it’s a feeling that it’s somehow self-indulgent, that it’s laziness or taking your foot off the gas. The stories and language around self-care can feel a bit wishy-washy, but it’s not about having a bath and lighting a candle – it’s about courage, and having compassion for yourself. It’s the ability to recognise that you’re struggling, and the commitment to do what’s necessary to alleviate or prevent that.
Rein in your imagination
One of the reasons human beings are prone to anxiety is this resource we have in the higher brain centre: imagination. It means we can predict things and test theory out before we commit to action, so it’s a very valuable resource – but it gets out of control. You start imagining scenarios like, ‘I’m going to fail this exam, and I’m not going to have a job and then I’m going to lose my house…’ and all that happens at breakneck speed. So it’s really important that people rein in their imagination and focus on what they can control in the moment. Acknowledge that you have worries, but park them for that day and focus on what you can influence, what you can control and what resources you do have available.
We know that burnout affects people who are very conscientious. If your job is very meaningful to you, and a strong part of your identity, it can get out of balance, so it’s important to learn to push back, to put boundaries in and say no. It can be difficult to be assertive, but try to have those conversations early on with your manager. Discuss what’s important for you to do and what you need to focus on, and come to some kind of mutual agreement rather than taking all the responsibility on yourself. It’s easy to feel that sense of urgency and think, ‘Everything needs to be done now and it’s all my responsibility’ – but there isn’t anything that’s one person’s responsibility. A useful CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) technique is to map out where your responsibility and other people’s responsibilities lie, and then push those back on those people.
Rituals are a great way of demarcating beginnings and endings. It might be something as simple as taking a shower and changing your clothes at the end of work to signify to your body and mind that that part of the day is finished. Or it might be that at the start of the work day you have a cup of tea, or a little ritual of how you organise your desk. If you can have your workstation in a particular area or room then that’s a good way to create those associations in your brain. But if not, at the very least try to avoid walking around the house with your laptop. We can use technology as our friend though – I noticed recently that my mood was quite low in the morning because I’d be scrolling on Twitter, which can be quite a toxic place at times. So I moved the app to a folder on my phone that meant I had to take three more steps to get to it. It sounds simple, but it works.
Ask for help when you need it
Most people who are successful in life have a support network around them. We’re social creatures; we need each other to regulate our emotions, and learning is often a relational practice. It’s wise to accept that we can’t do things alone, and it helps other people to feel needed and valued too. Finding your allies is a really important way of getting through stressful times, so reach out for support from other people early. It’s a dual responsibility, though: while it’s our responsibility to recognise when we’ve reached the limit of what we can deal with, it’s an organisation’s responsibility to create a climate where that’s acceptable. When it comes to speaking to your manager, plan out what you’re going to say in advance so that you feel comfortable. Map out what your concerns are and what you think would help you – give them a steer, and work together to come up with a plan. Be mindful about what you feel comfortable sharing, and what is relevant to share. You don’t need to tell everybody every bit of the story.
Make time for things that make you happy
Weave pleasurable and joyful activities into the diary to give yourself a break from the intensity of study and work. As with all things, it’s about balance, but we need to allow ourselves some decompression time. When we have a lot on, or we feel very anxious, that’s where planning can really help. Recognise your exams as a time-bound project. Think to yourself, ‘Exams are coming up, it’s probably going to be a six-week chunk out of my life, but it’s not going to last forever. I’m going to plan in when I study, but also plan when I put some downtime in.’ We need forward focus: it motivates us to know that when the exams are over, we’ve got a break away planned or a meal out with friends. It’s important to get into this organisation – and I think accountants especially are quite like that.
Let go of perfectionism
Along with conscientiousness, perfectionism is linked to burnout. The saying goes that ‘perfectionism is the enemy of progress’. Progress is what we should focus on, not perfectionism – though that doesn’t mean to say we can’t focus on excellence. Thinking about your inner critic is important here, and the way you motivate yourself. A lot of people motivate themselves with a harsh inner critic: ‘You’ve got to get this done. You can’t slack off. Anything less than perfect is not acceptable.’ We need to motivate ourselves with self-compassion – there’s a part of you that is your ally, that is wise enough to know that good enough is good enough. Tuning into that internal coach will serve you well as you go through your career.
Take time for regular reflection
Reflective practice is really good for mental health. Journaling can be a powerful way to relieve stress; writing down how you feel and reviewing it to spot patterns and identify the things that trigger you and the things that elevate your mood. There’s a cycle to reflective practice – we can do it on a monthly or even a daily basis – and it’s good to recognise that it’s a dynamic process. What helped you today may not necessarily help you in three months’ time. So we need to be flexible, really dig into our coping strategies and ask if they’re really achieving what we want them to. Developing that sense of self-awareness will stand you in good stead for the future. It’s about giving yourself permission to choose what works for you and develop your own toolkit.
CABA is the charity that supports the wellbeing of the chartered accountant community. It provides lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students and their families across the globe. It provides a range of free online resources as well as practical advice and support, which is free, impartial and strictly confidential. Find out more about the support available from CABA here.