It's easy to understand how tax and accounting professionals – like professionals in all fields – experience stress and can become overwhelmed with work.
In this episode of the Pulse of the Practice, “Focus and Busy,” Paul Miller, CPA from Business by Design and I speak with Amaris Vicari, owner of a consulting company, The Beneficial Element, to discuss her opinions on mindfulness in the workplace.
Amaris formerly worked with me at Thomson Reuters before opening her own business, which, in part, deals with mindfulness in a corporate setting.
The growth of mindfulness in the workplace
The effect on productivity when mindfulness in the workplace is employed is a growing topic of conversation. It has increased enormously in the past 10-15 years.
“There’s sort of been almost an explosion of mindfulness in the workplace because of the direct impact and application it can have for various reasons and outcomes,” says Vicari, explaining how it specifically relates to stress management, pressure, and productivity. It’s a common theme, relating to preparation for tax season. “There’s a lot of pressure involved in deadlines. There’s also just this world, at large, that creates the day-to-day stress. When it gets compounded with additional things, it can really just seem overwhelming.”
Vicari relates it to all that is going on in our lives.
“We have our personal lives, we have our families, our significant others, pets to take care of, we’ve got our job,” explains Vicari. “There are deadlines. We’ve got time-sensitive things that are happening.”
What Vicari finds is that professionals have additional layers of work and responsibility to cover, more than just what falls into their job description. She sees as an “almost job on top of the job that comes with what you’re doing day to day at work.”
When you factor the world in which we live into the equation — chaos from natural disasters, health crises, political climate, economic concerns — it can add to the level of stress anyone experiences.
“So how can we navigate that more skillfully?” asks Vicari. “That really is where mindfulness in the workplace comes into play. And at the core of it, mindfulness really is being defined as being present. Which is also sort of a big topic.”
She explains how the more formal definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose work states mindfulness is an awareness stressing purposefully paying attention to (and living in) the present moment.
Staying focused to manage daily, workplace stress
“We can take that big topic and apply it to work in the context of the tax professionals and the current climate that they’re in,” says Vicari. “I think that it’s really important to…broadly talk about how mindfulness can create greater self-awareness and the greater awareness of how you interact with others.
“And one of the biggest things about self-awareness is your stress. Being aware of your stress, being able to manage pressure and stress better and being able to choose what we pay attention to.”
She equates being able to manage stress and learning how to focus on your personal tasks at hand — rather than using your personal bandwidth on exterior forces over which you have little control — to having the equivalent of a “superpower.”
“Often, with everything that I mentioned going on in this chaotic world, our attention is pulled,” says Vicari. “We’re in this reactive mode and we’re not in a proactive mode of where we’re actually really trying to choose what we pay attention to. And, that’s where things can kind of snowball and get compounded with stress.”
Setting aside time for mindfulness to create focus
Admittedly, much of what takes place during the regular functioning of accounting firms is pretty well set into a routine. There is a great amount of structure with our line of work. So, how do we add a layer of mindfulness in the workplace into the equation? Aside from trying to hit all the deadlines, perhaps there should be a greater sense of trying to define what we will be accomplishing.
“I think that’s common in any workplace, probably, especially with tax professionals, where there is so much work to get done,” says Vicari. ” There are things that you can kind of do to integrate into your day. So, it’s basically things that you’re already doing. But, doing them in a different way to help create this ability to manage stress better and to maintain greater focus and performance.”
She explains the science of mindfulness is still relatively new. However, many studies suggest certain types of mindfulness practices help rewire your brain, which may help anyone become more productive and focused.
It doesn’t take much time to practice. In fact, Vicari mentions a mindfulness exercise commonly known as focused attention training. This is a short exercise which helps train your brain to focus and perform at a higher level. Elements of this exercise can be used to manage stress for those who have a harder time squeezing out a few minutes of personal time.
Deep breathing the foundation for focused attention training
“One of the biggest things is deep breathing,” says Vicari, who admits the natural response for many is to disregard such recommendations as trite or disingenuous. It’s a mistake to not try it. “There’s science behind that kind of help. So when you’re stressed, a number of things happen to your body. Cortisol can get released, the blood rushes out of your organs and into your limbs to help you fight, fight or flee. Your pupils can dilate to see danger, your heart rate increases.”
Having that sort of response is helpful when you are in actual danger. But it’s not at all helpful when dealing with day-to-day work occurrences. However, deep breathing stimulates the human body’s vagus nerve, which provides the ability to respond in a more ideal manner. Deep breathing is an easy and discreet way to practice mindfulness in the workplace.
“It essentially can move your nervous system from a stress state to a less stress state and more regulated state,” says Vicari. “That’s something (you can do), when you’re emailing or when you’re doing things, you have to breathe anyway.”
There are different ways of incorporating such breathing techniques into daily routines. Some smartwatches or phone apps are able to help with this. Whether it is during a brief break or while working at your desk, using these breathing techniques for staying focused and in the moment can help relieve stress. Doing this also keeps our minds in the present instead of allowing room for stressful thoughts outside of the task at hand to dominate us.
I know there are instances in my typical day where I can apply this. I have a client meeting, followed by a little bit of work, another client meeting, and so on. Perhaps focus exercises in between each task may work. Or, maybe I could take more of an interval approach, scheduling specific times throughout the day to practice mindfulness.
So, is there an ideal method of practicing mindfulness in the workplace?
Find your own mindfulness in the workplace
Vicari says finding what works best for each individual is key. Just like running is good for one person, yoga is good for another. The important thing to find a method and routine that works best for you — because mindfulness exercises are just like traditional physical exercise.
How you choose to practice mindfulness in the workplace — or anywhere else, for that matter — is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
“Mindfulness is like going to the gym for your brain, which is wonderful,” she says. “Personally for me, I have people who just take 10 minutes out at lunch or there are people that want to do five minutes in the morning or five minutes in-between a meeting and then five minutes before they go to bed, for example.
“So I would say that’s my long-winded way of saying try to see what works. But any little bit can really help.”
Listen to the “Focus and Busy” episode of the Pulse of the Practice podcast on your preferred platform (Google Play, Apple, Spotify, Stitcher) or here.