People & Leadership

How accountants can create headspace during stressful times

Accountancy can be a high-stress job. Burnout, depression and other mental health conditions are common. Here's advice on how to cope.

Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT might be in full swing but there’s little doubt the past few years have been yet another incredibly stressful period for our profession.

And with MTD for Income Tax delayed until April 2026, the next few years are going to be pretty busy too.

Workplace stress has doubled since 2014/15, rising to 822,000 individuals reporting it in 2020/21, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Accountants need to learn how to identify mental health issues, and take action.

Here’s what I talk about in this article:

But remember, if everything feels like it’s getting too much, you should get help immediately.

It’s never too late to seek help—and nor is it a sign of weakness.

The eye of the storm

With Making Tax Digital and other recent legislative requirements, accountants have been at the centre of a huge storm. They not only have to implement the difficult changes with clients but also act as educators.

With more Making Tax Digital coming in April 2026 and April 2027 with the introduction of MTD for Income Tax, and the mandatory basis period changes being implemented before then, this situation isn’t going to change.

In other words, things are only going to get worse in terms of workload and requirements.

Millions of businesses across the UK are going to be affected.

And again, it’s the accountant who’s expected to act as everything from a shoulder to cry upon, to teacher, and in many cases magician—in that you have to pull off the impossible to make it all work for your clients.

To get through the next few years, accountants need to learn how to create headspace—to protect their mental health by being able to identify when things are too much, and respond appropriately.

This is becoming a vital skill for our profession that’s as important as knowing how to create a spreadsheet formula, or calculate VAT.

It can be simple as knowing when certain warning signs appear.

Below, I take a look at some of the things to watch out for, but please feel free to add your own below in the comments.

The more we all talk about this, the better we will be.

Know when you’re in trouble

It’s hard to avoid stress in our working lives. Some would even argue that a small amount stress adds flavour to the working day, helping keep us on our toes.

The problem is that it’s impossible to spot when the stress becomes too much. And I don’t need to tell you how easily that happens.

We all vary in the amount of stress we’re willing to tolerate. One person thrives in perpetual chaos during nine to five, while that’s another’s personal hell.

Therefore, my first tip is to learn to recognise the symptoms not just of stress but of other commonplace mental health complains in the workplace, such as burnout and depression.

And measure them relative only to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Often realising you’re in trouble is surprisingly straightforward.

If you say to somebody that you’re feeling stressed, that’s a key warning sign that can’t be ignored.

But there are symptom checkers online. I know these might feel foolish or a waste of time, but why not spend just five minutes while having a coffee checking yourself out using one of them?

If you find there is a problem, it’s vital that you take your mental health seriously and look at how you can manage it.

We tend to stigmatise and ignore mental health in a way we just wouldn’t ignore a physical illness or condition.

And the temptation to ignore a mental health issue is often incredibly strong in our profession.

But stress, depression, burnout and more won’t just go away if they’re ignored. The only way for things to get better is to make changes for the better, and do so immediately.

Know your working hours

You may be surprised at just how many hours you’re working.

It might feel to you as if you’re only working a 40-hour week. But we ignore those times when we decide to go into work early to catch up on tasks or stay maybe an hour or two later than usual for the same reason.

You might find your working life begins to stretch into the weekend in ways that at first seem reasonable—perhaps a few hours on a Sunday evening to prepare yourself for the working week.

But this often turns into spending half of Sunday working.

This then turns into the whole of Sunday.

And don’t think you’re not actually working the whole day if you decide to spend an hour in the morning with the kids before burying yourself in work.

It’s amazing how we try and trick ourselves into thinking we’re not overworking.

Count the hours.

Imagine you’re a contractor working for yourself, and maintain a timesheet from Monday to Sunday. This can be done using apps if you don’t want to mess around with paper.

How many hours are you working?

Employees legally can’t work more than 48 hours a week. And that limit was decided based on very good evidence and research into workplace health.

Ok, so you might be self-employed or the owner of the practice, so the 48-hour week might not be a legal limit.

But work more than that and you’re literally creating an unsafe working environment for yourself that’s proven to lead to mental or even physical health issues.

Know when to delegate

In a specialised industry such as ours, certain people have key knowledge that can be difficult to transfer to others.

Therefore, you might find yourself becoming a go-to person for a certain kind of problem or client.

You may have close relationships with clients that you don’t want to jeopardise by handing them off to others.

But there’s no heroism in having work piled upon you. It’s just going to use you up and leave you burned out.

You have to know when to delegate to others.

Sometimes this feels counterintuitive because you might have to spend what feels like even more time training somebody, or showing them the ropes.

But in every single case, I promise you that this will be worth it in the long term. Not only will you feel better but sharing skills creates a more equitable working environment, and allows others to progress.

And you have to know how to delegate too.

This involves realising that delegating might not achieve the quality of results you personally would deliver. You may have to allow more time for completion of the task, and build in the potential for failure.

But all of this is still better than attempting to take on the load yourself.

Put simply, if you find yourself delegating then you’re probably doing the right thing. It’s not always a magic cure but it’s a step in the right direction.

Know when to say no

If you own a practice or are a partner, it can be incredibly hard to turn down new clients or new work. It’s feels like you’re turning away money.

But you and your practice have limited capacity. There might be 10% to 20% that you can squeeze in beyond this, but only for a short while.

However, short of serious expansion plans, there comes a time when you just have to say no.

You know your business model and unless your income is short of that stated in your projected profit and loss, there’s nothing to be worried about.

And you have to enforce rules, too.

The individual who arrives on 30 January with a carrier bag full of receipts, asking to be signed on as a new client, isn’t somebody you want to be dealing with at that point.

It’s unfortunate for them but they undoubtedly knew the Self Assessment requirements, and the deadline.

Somebody else’s lack of planning can’t become your impossible deadline.

Saying no is another skill that has to be learned. But ultimately, it’s a blow that can be cushioned by being proactively helpful.

For example, when turning down new client enquiries, why not suggest a fellow practice nearby that might be able to help?

If a sole trader is making enquiries, why not direct them to HMRC’s website, which helps them understand Self Assessment requirements?

Why not create a list of potential new clients and let them know you’ll take them on as soon as you can?

Know when (and how) to get help

If you’re facing a mental health crisis right now then get help as soon as possible.

Speaking to people is the first step, whether that’s your GP, colleagues, or friends and family. You may choose to directly consult a therapist or counsellor.

Don’t forget that some workplace wellbeing programmes offer self-referral.

You’re never alone and help is always much closer at hand than you might think.

The major accountancy bodies offer terrific mental health support, and should be another port of call:

Final thoughts on creating headspace

We live in a world where seeking help for mental health issues is much easier than it used to be, although there’s still a stigma attached.

It’s still an act of bravery to make the first steps. But I want to invite you to do so, and to do so now.

If you’re suffering then this is something that must be done. You can’t continue working if it’s unsustainable, for whatever reason.

Consider colleagues and family too.

If you’re stressed, it will inevitably rub off on to them in some fashion, and they too may have their own issues for which they might want to seek help.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in March 2022 and has been updated for relevance.