Industry Trends

What Is Accountant Burnout?

Gusto Editors  
Young businesswoman looking stressed in a modern office.

Do you want to know about accounting burnout and how to avoid it? When you’re overwhelmed, it can feel like you never have time for self-care or joy. To start shifting this, ask yourself, “What drains my energy?” Then, look for the root causes of your lack of enough time. 

Gusto’s mission is to help create workplaces that empower better lives. As always, we’re thrilled to partner with CPA Academy to bring you a webinar hosted by coach Amber Setter. In “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” Amber shared her observations about overwhelm, discussed energy management, and laid out the ways people drain their energy.

Amber Setter is a consciousness coach who helps individuals and groups cultivate awareness to expand what is possible in their professional and personal lives. A natural intuitive, she brings insight and compassion to all of her offerings. She is a certified, non-practicing CPA who worked as an accounting recruiter before pursuing her coaching business. 

What does burnout look like?

Do you feel like you don’t have enough time? Have you ever considered leaving your accounting career because it’s draining your energy? If so, you know that burnout is real. This is especially true in demanding service professions consisting of knowledge workers. It might be to internalize, but you need to take just as much care of yourself as you do your clients.

Exhausted businesswoman having a headache in office.

Unfortunately, many CPAs push themselves to the point of burnout and don’t even realize it’s happening. People can push their minds and bodies to deliver incredible amounts of work, which on the one hand is amazing, but on the other hand, is dangerous. When you’re not even aware of how much stress you’re incurring, you run the risk of it hitting you all at once. It’s essential that you have some sort of regular practice to see how you are doing on all levels— physically, mentally, and emotionally. Amber shared what she’s observed about burnout in the accounting industry:

“We have those peak periods—maybe we call them the busy season, or they’re around a regulatory deadline when demand increases. … I’ve seen a lot of anxiety, burnout, and turnover in organizations running at an all-time high.”

– Amber Setter

It would be great if people had a similar warning signal as their smartphone does. Amber brought in this analogy and how we can think of our energy capacities much like a phone battery. Imagine, for a moment, that your energy levels have a battery too. Do you need to be charged?

“[Ask yourself,] … ‘What’s my battery charge level? Am I getting low, and [do] I need to recharge myself?’ …  Do you find yourself at 75% to 100% charged? Maybe you’re 50% to 74% [and] feeling moderately charged? [Or are you fading at] 25% to 50% or 0% to 25%. [Are you feeling a] little burned out?”

– Amber Setter

Framing how you’re feeling according to the analogy of a phone battery demonstrates an important point: You need to do more than just manage your time. You need to think more about managing your energy. This means that you assess activities based not just on how much time you spend on them but on how they affect you. The way an activity affects you will determine how effective you are in other areas of life.

For example, let’s say you spend every morning scrolling through social media for 15 minutes. That’s not necessarily a huge amount of time, but it can foster feelings of jealousy, fear, or stress due to seeing posts about the news, friends who seem to have ideal lives, or simply taking in too much information that leaves your brain cluttered. 

Social media can leave you feeling deflated, which may affect how focused you are on a project. This creates a ripple effect of poor performance or low efficiency that affects other aspects of your life.

Amber likened energy to currency in that you can invest it in high-yield or low-yield activities. This means that if an activity takes an hour, but contributes to your overall performance and well-being, it might be worth investing in. On the other hand, if an activity is short-lived but draining you, consider that a low-yield activity. The energy investments we make can affect our ability to focus, our ability to meet our deadlines, and much more.

“You can take a dollar, [and] you can invest it in a high-yield activity, and you grow your dollar. … Energy is just like that. You can get energetic dividends, or in contrast, you can invest it in low-yield activities that really drain you.”

– Amber Setter

Your energy is a finite currency that you can invest in different ways. Some activities that you do will have long-term benefits; others will affect you negatively. Managing your energy yield is a big key to success. 

What is an energy drain?

Before you start the process of changing your energy yield, you first need to see what’s not working or what Amber calls “low-yield” activities. While this may seem simplistic, it can sometimes be a challenging first step. It can feel confronting to look at areas of our lives that need to be improved. Taking stock of how you manage your time and energy means you have to be totally honest with yourself. You have to be willing to admit what needs to change.

Bored young woman looking at computer in the office.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see those things, but remember, a breakthrough is on the other side of the discomfort. Take ownership of it. I’m a mom. I have a daughter who’s six and a half. … When [I’m] seeing the things [I] don’t like, I always think about when my daughter gets scared, and she thinks that there’s a monster under her bed. I take the flashlight and we look together. …  So there’s liberation when we look at those things that are scary and realize, ‘Hey, we have the power to make the change.’”

– Amber Setter

If you don’t acknowledge something, it’s easier to forget about it and delay the process of change. But in order to have a more fulfilling, relaxed, and rewarding work and life experience, you have to do self-inventory first.

To begin, start by jotting down which activities or circumstances are creating an energy drain for you. Writing things down is important because studies have shown that writing things down actually influences your brain chemistry differently than if you’d just think about them. Putting pen to paper also gives your ideas and reflections a sense of importance, which can subconsciously signal to you that you’re taking your growth seriously. Lastly, getting thoughts out of your head and onto the page can sometimes help relieve you of stress you didn’t even realize you were carrying.

Common energy drains:

  • Working too long at your desk without breaks
  • Spending time on social media
  • Watching the news before bed
  • Not getting enough exercise or physical movement
  • Staying indoors all day instead of getting fresh air and sunshine
  • Worrying about what other people think of you
  • Staying in your pajamas all-day
  • Consuming too much media on a regular basis
  • Spending too much time isolated and away from other people

Energy drains can be internal—such as a thought pattern—or behavioral, such as scrolling through social media. They can also be external, such as one-sided friendships, a client who never pays on time, or the bombardment of negativity in the news. There are many ways energy drains can present themselves. Some can even appear to be a good thing, such as caring about your reputation at work. While managing how other people see you is a necessary part of professional life, it can become toxic and draining if you give it too much importance.

“You can be sitting there doing your job, but you’re also in this imaginary world of, ‘How’s a sponsor going to react to this email? And what if they don’t like me? What if they don’t think I’m smart?’ [That’s] some of the inner voice chatter that will go on and waste a lot of energy, or those might be the things that are keeping us up at night imagining and replaying scenarios.”

– Amber Setter

As you go through your list, notice if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Is it challenging to see that your morning news habit is actually affecting your work life more than you want it to? The great thing about discomfort, Amber shared, is that it’s often a signal that there is a breakthrough on the other side. If something isn’t feeling good, you then have the option to take action. 

Motivating yourself to overcome burnout

One important, but often overlooked or neglected, area of self-change is learning to focus on what you want instead of just what you don’t want. Your goal shouldn’t be to beat yourself up for failing to take care of yourself or to overwhelm yourself with everything you see that needs to change. Neither of those things is helpful, and neither is the point of self-inventory! Reflecting on what isn’t working in your life is meant to help make you happier, more positive, healthy, and vibrant. Self-criticism doesn’t help with any of those goals. 

“We can be very present to pain, but it’s so important to get present to possibility in the future so that you can dream up where you want to be and where you want to take your life.”

Amber Setter
Young overworked businessman in the office.

Stay focused on the positive. What will life look like when you do have energy? Think about it as clearly as you can, and keep coming back to it when you get discouraged.

“I want you in this world to really imagine what life would be like for you if your battery was fully charged most of the time. … If you had a fully charged battery most of the time, and your energy was running at this optimal level, … how [would] you feel, and what [would] life would be like in the space where fatigue and burnout were replaced with vitality and vibrance?”

– Amber Setter

Not only does this help you feel better and more motivated about the process of self-discovery, but it also sets you up for success on a practical level. You can take the concept of envisioning the new onto a very practical, daily level by replacing bad habits with good habits. This is so important because if you take something out of your life and don’t replace it with something new, it creates a void that can quickly be filled with old patterns and habits.

For example, let’s say you’ve decided that you don’t want to spend your morning consuming media. Unless you think about a replacement for this activity, you could easily collapse back into it. So, instead of focusing so much on how you don’t want to watch TV every morning, you should envision what you’re going to replace it with. Maybe it’s a morning routine where you have your coffee and journal about the day. Maybe you’ll spend those extra few minutes stretching or meditating. There are countless activities that do have high yields. 

Remember, you’re not the only one who has areas of energy management that need to be improved upon. Everyone has them—it’s just a matter of taking the time to pause, reflect, and then imagine a different way of doing things. This process of envisioning your dream life is one of the biggest keys to creating lasting change, and it can affect every area of your life.

“If you were fully energized, how would that affect you? Imagine what the ripple effect would be. You fully energize—how would that impact your family life, your business life, your relationships with your clients, your relationships with other people that matter most to you, your creativity to [do] great new things?”

– Amber Setter

How will your life look once you’re running on a full battery?

Learn more about accountant burnout

Burnout is all too common, but it can be prevented. One of the most important factors in burnout is a lack of good energy management. This requires you to evaluate the activities you do on a regular basis and assess how they affect you both in the short and long term. The energy you expend on them is an investment that will create either low or high yields. The first step is awareness. You might do any number of things that lower your returns on energy such as scrolling on social media, watching the news before bed, or worrying about what people think about you. Over time, these can erode your well-being. Once you’ve managed the discomfort of seeing what doesn’t work, it’s time to focus on what you do want. Envision a life that’s more balanced and filled with vitality. Return to this vision often.

Gusto’s mission is to create a world that empowers a better life. We understand that work-life balance and well-being go hand in hand. For more insights, check out our other articles based on the same webinar, “Managing Your Energy During Burnout Season,” and “Energy Is Currency: How to Spend It Wisely.”

Becoming a Gusto Partner can make your life easier. Get payroll and HR support for your team and our new advisory revenue stream for your practice through our people advisory platform. As a Gusto partner, you’ll also get tools to help you expand your accounting practice and offer your clients new insights, plus a free payroll subscription for your own accounting firm. Sign up today!

Updated: May 17, 2022

Gusto Editors
Gusto Editors


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