Stress and burnout are serious health risks for many people in overstretched finance teams.
Stress Awareness Day on Wednesday 1 November is part of International Stress Awareness Week – an annual event which aims to promote stress management and fight the stigma that can be attached to stress and mental health.
Here, we look at the problem in finance and accounting teams – and share some experts’ advice on managing stress, both for yourself and your colleagues.
How widespread is stress among finance teams?
Stress has been recognised as a huge problem in all areas of work.
The UK’s Labour Force Survey found 914,000 people suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021-22 – leading to the loss of 17m working days. Stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 51% of all cases of work-related ill health and for 55% of working days lost to work-related ill health.
Higher rates were found in professional occupations and associate professional occupations, suggesting finance teams are likely to see more stress than the average workplace.
A 2018 survey by recruiter Robert Half found 78% of chief financial officers were expecting stress levels to rise, with increased workloads and growing business expectations cited as key reasons.
CABA (the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association) found in 2022 that 55% of accountants were suffering stress and burnout. Nearly a third spent a lot of their leisure time worrying about work.
Many finance and accountancy teams have seen their workloads grow as staff have become harder to find. Research by iplicit among 1,000 senior finance decision makers points to some of the pressures: 72% of respondents take longer than three days to prepare month-end accounts and 17% take more than two weeks. The survey found 17% blamed a lack of resources
Signs that you may be stressed
The International Stress Management Association UK, the organisation behind Stress Awareness Day, points to a host of possible symptoms of stress, grouped into four areas:
- Psychological signs – including an inability to concentrate, memory lapses, being easily distracted, negative thinking and being less intuitive and creative.
- Emotional signs – such as being tearful, irritable or defensive, having mood swings or lacking motivation.
- Physical signs – including aches and pains, muscle tension, grinding teeth, frequent colds and infections, bowel problems and tiredness.
- Behavioural signs – including forgoing pleasurable activities, being prone to accidents, increased reliance on alcohol, smoking, caffeine or drugs, and poor time management.
Jasmine Navarro is an award-winning wellbeing expert and founder of the coaching business Nava. She has had her own experience of burnout and says we all need to watch for the signs.
“It might start with being irritable all the time. Maybe your eating and sleeping habits have changed, you have difficulty concentrating and there’s a voice inside you saying you need to slow down,” she says.
“I saw signs in myself, but I kept getting new opportunities and thought I had to say yes all the time.”
Haydan Firth, an accredited Life and Performance Coach, puts it this way: “It helps if you think about what the stress is taking away from you, rather than what it’s giving you.
“You need creativity, clarity and peace of mind for your work. You need a quiet mind to be able to connect with your intuition and you need your body to be in a good place. You know there’s a presence of stress when those things are not accessible to you.
“When you’re stressed, you can’t tap into that creativity, your body fails you and you can’t comfortably sit and get on with your work. You might be functional but you’re not functioning.”
How to deal with your own stress
The NHS lays out some key ways to manage work-related stress:
- Identify what you find stressful.
- Focus on what you can change.
- Learn to deal with stress in the moment – for example, by taking three slow, deep breaths.
- Talk to someone you can trust – whether a colleague, friend, relative or professional.
- Build resilience – perhaps by learning techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to reframe your negative thoughts.
- Set boundaries and switch off from work.
- Look after your physical health.
For Haydan Firth, dealing with stress starts with giving yourself permission to accept that things have been getting on top of you.
“You need to do a bit of a self-audit. Start with your body. Are you rested? Are you hydrated?” he says.
“Something that’s really powerful and underutilised is the idea of getting more connected and grounded. Being in nature – green space and blue space – works wonders. Allow yourself to feel connected again.”
Physical activities ranging from yoga to cold water swimming can have a big impact on mental health. “There’s such power in getting out of your head and back into your body,” he says.
When you’re under stress, your leisure time can be spent passively watching Netflix, scrolling social media, eating badly and drinking alcohol. Being more intentional with that time is a good start.
“It’s important to identify what charges you,” says Haydan. “Is it being in nature, going out with friends, taking part in some outdoor experience, reading a book, or making a conscious decision to see a film that you really want to see? You want to go back to work on Monday feeling good, not just thinking ‘I got through the weekend’.
“What gives you energy? What drives you? If you have some awareness of those things, that’s half the battle.”
Jasmine Navarro says that mindfulness techniques and deep breathing can help us connect better with ourselves and our surroundings – but that sometimes we just need to use the magic word “no”.
“I see people around me who are so stressed and yet even in their social life, they’re saying yes to things when they really want to rest,” she says.
She says we need to reflect on the self-esteem issues and self-limiting beliefs that may lie behind us saying yes when we want to say no.
“If you don’t have a healthy relationship with yourself, you’re probably not going to have healthy boundaries with other people,” she says.
“You need to know how to communicate your needs and ask for them. Sometimes clients will tell me ‘My boss has given me this to do and I’m so stressed out’. We talk about it and sometimes they end up having a conversation with their boss – and nine times out of 10 there will be a solution. They’ll get help or will be given longer to do the task – but most of the time, their boss had no idea they were stressed because the employee just kept saying ‘Yes, I’ll do it’.”
Dealing with stress as a leader
Leading a finance team requires you to consider other people’s stress levels, even when you’re under pressure yourself.
“You need to create a space where people can voice their concerns without feeling judged,” says Jasmine Navarro.
“As a leader, you can’t be responsible for all the employees all the time, but you have to be approachable and a little bit vulnerable and honest, so that others can be the same. Unless they’re feeling psychologically safe, they’re not going to share anything.”
However much you want to create that safe space, people will sometimes prefer to talk to someone from outside the organisation. Jasmine suggests hosting workshops with a specialist. Haydan Firth says one-to-one reviews could be outsourced, so people can speak freely and have the option of having their concerns fed back to management.
“People sometimes think managing stress is about doing less, but it’s not. It’s about managing workloads and expectations,” he says.
“If we can see someone looks stressed, we need to open up channels for communication. Is their stress professional or personal? What expectations have they got and why aren’t they managing to fulfil them?
“I really believe traditional one-to-ones aren’t enough any more. People need a space where they can be really honest.”
While there’s no shortage of advice on dealing with stress, prioritising it can be the hard bit.
“When you plan your diary, the first thing that should go in it should be your self-care processes,” says Haydan Firth. He plans the week in his online calendar, with activities such as exercise, journalling and reading blocked out as appointments that cannot be changed.
Jasmine Navarro advises people to start small when changing their habits.
“Maybe it’s a little bit of deep breathing, maybe it’s writing a couple of sentences in a journal or going out to get some fresh air – or maybe it’s just regularly taking five minutes for yourself,” she says.
“It’s not about changing everything overnight, because that never works anyway. It’s about changing one tiny thing each time – and then that will give you the motivation to move on and try something else.”
Reviewing the finance function
When a finance team is under pressure, the people in it can find themselves working long hours against hard deadlines.
The need to balance the books, compile and analyse complex data and present it in a digestible way all add to the strain. Everyone is aware of the importance of accuracy, but the likelihood of human error can grow with the volume of work.
In 2023, an iplicit guide identified four key ways to improve efficiency (defined as “maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense”) in the finance team:
- improved consolidation processes;
- better internal controls and processes;
- and live reporting and enquiries, to ensure data is all available in one place.
A look at workloads and working practices might help alongside a review of everyone’s relationship to pressure and stress.
See iplicit’s guide How To Improve Your Finance Team’s Efficiency in 2023.
Information about Stress Awareness Day and International Stress Awareness Week.
Guidance on work-related stress from the NHS.
Advice from the mental health charity Mind.
Information from the online platform Work Related Stress.
More about Jasmine Navarro and Haydan Firth.