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Taking account of stress in challenging times

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 Apr 2023

In Stress Awareness Month, Nick Elston, a speaker on the lived experience of mental health, explains how financial professionals can overcome anxiety and thrive in times of uncertainty.

I get it. In January 2022 – the start of a new year – I felt that the pandemic was tailing off, the economy beginning to recover, we had a whole blank canvas ahead of us… and then 2022 actually happened. Three prime ministers, global conflict, a change of monarchy, and it’s no wonder we stumbled into 2023 frazzled, stressed and with a fear of what will come next.

After many years of comparative stability, it’s fair to say that to a greater or lesser degree we are all experiencing an underlying feeling of anxiety, dread and fear right now, caused and compounded by this continual change.

It is often assumed that change – just like ‘mental health’ – will be negative, that it will come straight at us and hit us square between the eyes. However, rarely does that happen. Yes, change happens, but we may or may not be affected by it. What I have learned on my journey – both personally and professionally – is that it’s through those periods of change and uncertainty that magic can be found despite the chaos. Opportunities are everywhere and attitude is everything.

But day to day, I get it – it’s so easy to lose clarity of sight. And actually, accountants can suffer from this more than most. You are working in an industry that is experiencing more unique pressures than most. Take lockdown or tax changes as examples – as soon as Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak announced the latest initiatives, the expectation was on you to know all about that, right now! You may have just watched exactly the same press conference as your client but their expectation was you should have all the answers to their questions immediately. Like a twisted game of pass the parcel, they pass their fears, stresses and anxieties on to you.

Such change is inevitable. We cannot control the government, our clients, what people say or what people do. So instead, we need to work out how to ‘manage the manageables’ – a process I use with clients to help overcome anxiety.

How does this work? Put simply, it’s about focusing on what we do have control over, which is surprisingly little. But we can start to stack the odds in our favour by focusing on the following steps.

Set your boundaries

  • Work on building your ‘high-performing day’ – an old technique I was taught in my client-facing days that initially was aimed at producing targets, measures and desired outcomes for your day – to be as effective as possible. You can repurpose this idea for your wellbeing, focusing on your energy for the day.
  • Energy regulation – for example, going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time equals constant energy.
  • Incorporate healthy buffer zones between calls, meetings and events.
  • Set your working hours to ensure you have time for ‘recovery’ and downtime.
  • Build in regular movement, exercise and hydration.
  • Every day, do something you love that’s just for you.
  • Have the courage to take some time out for yourself – everyone needs a ‘sanity check’.

Manage expectations

  • Communicate your boundaries to your family, friends and clients.
  • Advise people how you can help them – and, just as importantly, how you can’t help them.
  • If the way you work has changed, inform your clients as an ‘upfront contract’ on how you want them to engage with you.
  • It’s your business – set your terms. 
  • Be prepared to lose. This is tough but if we are not living life or doing business on our own terms then how can we expect it to come back to us?

These are all what I love to call ‘the BFOs’ – the Blinding Flashes of the Obvious. These are things that we should know, that we would advise others to do, but that we rarely do ourselves. Trust me: it’s easier to give advice than it is to take that advice yourself. But if we try to live life or do business the way we have always done it, there’s no guarantee that it will work in today’s reality, let alone tomorrow’s or even next week’s.

Especially with regard to clients, pricing and confrontation, most of the time the challenges lie with us, and come down to the three Cs: courage, confidence and conviction. When we are struggling with mental health challenges, prolonged stress or anxiety, even low self-esteem or self-belief, it’s the three Cs that get dented.

Most of my own anxiety, stress and challenges come from regret about the past or fear of the future – there is so much damage to be done by making assumptions right now. We cannot control the future – we cannot control pandemics, other people, clients, what they say, what they do. All we can control is how we proactively choose to go into each and every day.

But choice is the first thing we sacrifice when we struggle with stress – we start to go with the ebb and flow of life and business rather than do things on our terms. We are hardwired to look for fear – so for me, I need to fact-check my anxieties rather than make assumptions. This thing that is making me stressed or anxious, is it fact? Is it real? Or is the story I am telling myself an assumption? You’ll be amazed at how often we choose to create anxiety and stress about things that never happen.

Build your own high-performing day. Set your boundaries, manage your expectations and start to communicate this to others in order to begin living your life and running your business on your terms. Because if you are not doing these things on your terms, the question must be asked – whose terms are you doing them on?

That thought alone scares me enough to keep pushing and keep developing.

Mental health & wellbeing

ICAEW works with caba to promote the mental health of chartered accountants and their families. Take a look through these articles, guides, webinars and events.

ICAEW mental health wellbeing team bonding communication

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