Managing your mental and physical health is crucial to professional and personal success. As summer turns to autumn, now is the perfect time to focus on your wellbeing and be sure to thrive rather than just survive.
If we don’t manage our mental and physical health, our sense of wellbeing suffers. Unhealthy habits and overwork have a huge impact on us in times of stress and can lead to physical and mental ill health.
Occupational charity caba is here to help the ICAEW community thrive through everyday situations to exceptional life-changing circumstances. Here, Jenni Rose BFP FCA, Senior Lecturer in Accounting at the University of Manchester’s Alliance Manchester Business School, and caba trainer, offers her tips and advice and points to caba resources that will help you hatch a plan for your wellbeing.
Adjusting to new environments
If you’re starting studying with ICAEW or working in a new company, think of yourself as a sponge, ready to absorb everything around you, including advice and connections. You might be in a new city with new people to meet, and you’ll also have to adapt to the demands of studying and working full time. Be patient with yourself as you adapt and take in everything which is going on around you.
The best way to quickly adapt to your new surroundings is to ask questions so that you can understand what is expected of you. For example, if you have started with an employer on an ACA training agreement, there may be flexible or home working policies in place, but you may also have to follow specific ways of working on certain projects. It is likely you will work on multiple projects simultaneously with multiple managers who might not be aware of the demands from others, studying pressures or your own circumstances. Whilst you might feel vulnerable in sharing the pressures you are facing, honesty will reduce the chance of you over committing and missing deadlines.
Making a plan for work and study
The ACA is a challenging and a highly regarded qualification to be studying for but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Qualifying will typically take you three or four years. Don’t be tempted to race through it at a pace that’s unsustainable for you. Plan your studies so that you, considering your unique circumstances, can cope with demands placed on you.
Keep a note of how long it takes you to do a task, whether a mock exam, chapter in a book, or completing an audit procedure. Having a realistic idea of the time you need to complete different tasks will help you manage the competing demands on you and help you avoid the trap of Hofstader’s law: ‘It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstader’s law’. Set in place routines and timetables which are realistic and attainable.
Make the most of your study time by studying efficiently and tackling the tasks you find unpleasant first – also known as ‘eating the frog’. Your brain will fight against this as it feels good to go over questions you feel confident about, but it will maximise the limited time you have available for study by focusing on the topics you find hardest. Another tip is to finish your study session on a question that you find particularly interesting or approachable, rather than stopping at a point where it’s getting too difficult. That way, you will want to return to it when you are next scheduled to study and reduce procrastination.
The most effective studying is completed in, what psychologist Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi describes as, a ‘state of flow’. This is when your task is difficult but you can rise to that challenge, perform the best of your abilities and not feel stressed or overwhelmed. In this state, you will be focused and able to absorb and retain information. Distance yourself from distractions and set yourself a challenge with a time limit to push yourself to a state of flow when studying.
Accept that you will never be able to do everything: getting to the bottom of your inbox or answering every practice question. Some days it may even feel like you didn’t even get started on your to do list. You can combat this by carving out time for tasks which are important to you and prioritising this time for yourself. It’s a great way to ensure progression on the work you value and a key part of ensuring you manage your time effectively. Knowing which tasks to prioritise requires self-awareness and time spent reflecting on longer term goals, whether that is passing your exams or gaining a promotion.
Finally, and most importantly, remember that you need other people, so make time to build your support networks to avoid experiencing loneliness and isolation. Look for online study groups or support networks for other students, via ICAEW or on LinkedIn, for example. Building connections with others can help combat isolation and nurture relationships with contacts that may be helpful in the future too.
Taking time for yourself
Often, self-care can feel like another point on your to-do list which needs to be ticked off, but sometimes self-care is as simple as saying “no”. That may mean putting down your to-do list and moving away from your phone or your study books for half an hour. Or it can be practising breathing exercises. When I was an ACA student, a friend and I would text each other the word STOP – Stop, Take a breath, Observe (what’s around you and how you feel), Proceed – at random times as a reminder. When you have many demands on you, it’s easy to forget to stop, take a breath and appreciate what is right in front of you.
Self-awareness is a really important skill to develop. Spend time reflecting on what you enjoy, what you get energy from and what you find more difficult. Think about when in the day you have the most energy, how you react to things, what triggers might be and how you can calm yourself down at busy times.
Setting aside this time to deal with stress can be quite tricky when you are trying to impress in your role. Remember that many of your colleagues will have gone through ACA studying and know the demands on your time. If you are struggling with balancing work and your studies, then talk about how you’re feeling and seek advice.
Knowing when to ask for help
Pressure and stress are two different things. When you are under pressure, you are challenged but you have the skills to meet that challenge, and you can perform really well. Whereas stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'.
Become aware of what pressure means for you and at what point that becomes stress. When you feel you haven't got the resources to cope with the demands being placed upon you, you need to speak up. If you feel yourself reaching breaking point, don’t wait until the straw breaks the camel’s back. Reach out to your support network and charities like caba. The earlier you get help, the more easily you can bounce back.
Resources to help you
The caba website has a brilliant range of training sessions on mental health, including:
- Mental Health Skills for Life
- The Myth of Multitasking
- Navigating Burnout
- Daily Habits That Will Keep your Heart Healthy
If you need immediate support, caba’s emotional support page has a range of resources and signposts to help.
Find out more about caba, and the range of support offered, by visiting the website. Plus, join the caba webinar ‘Espresso smart hacks for exam success’ at 6:30pm UK time, 3 October 2022, to hear more from Jenni.
You can also contact the ICAEW student support team for assistance with your training and view the ICAEW CFAB and ACA exam resources.