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How to de-escalate and manage stress in your accounting firm

· 9 minute read

· 9 minute read

When clients think about managing stress within your accounting firm, it’s easy for them to think that most of your year is fairly stress-free once tax season is over. However, there are different types of stress that some accountants experience throughout the year both internally within the firm and externally with clients. How do you handle this stress to keep the culture positive in the firm and maintain healthy client relationships?

In the episode of the Pulse of the Practice, “Catching stress and de-escalation,” Paul Miller, CPA from Business by Design, Ryan Con, CPA from Shelton Associates, and I discussed how to catch the signs early to de-escalate and manage stress in your accounting firm all year round.

Managing stress with clients

“Stress? Never heard of it. Stress is overrated,” jokes Miller.  As accountants, we often feel that stress is a side-effect that comes with the job.

According to a recent survey by staffing firm Accountemps, 52% of accounting professionals said that they are stressed at work daily, and 60% reported their work-related pressure has increased over the past five years. This raises some questions of what might be causing stress in your accounting firm.

What kind of relationship do you have with your client? Can you manage the client’s expectations properly? Are they going to owe what they think they’re going to owe? Is something different from last time? Did a surprise come up with a client? All these questions may cause stress depending on the answers.

3 ways to manage stress in your firm

There are simple tools you can leverage to manage stress in your accounting firm. One way to de-escalate a potentially stressful situation is by making a change as soon as you see that expectations need to be adjusted, reinforced, or changed. The sooner you make that change the better. The longer you wait, more consequences could occur, and the stress level becomes more severe.

What this comes down to is good communication with clients and co-workers. Miller thinks realistically in his firm, when talking about handling stress with clients, it’s about managing client’s expectations and client relationship well.

If you wait until you’re in “putting-out-fires” mode, then you have to de-escalate situations that are very heightened, and this naturally causes stress. If we’re not catching potential issues earlier, then we can find ourselves in major stress mode. Ryan Con offers some advice as to actions we can take to help de-escalate the situations before they get out of hand.

Con suggests the best thing you can do to keep stress to a minimum is be in a preventative mode. Do this by setting clear expectations from the beginning. By working from a de-escalation standpoint, you can start recognizing signs of stress early, then you can handle it before it gets out of hand.

When you find your staff is getting overworked during tax season or stress is coming from clients who want things done now, question your fees, or take a long time to get the information you need, you may want to look at your firm’s processes to see what you could change to manage stress in your accounting firm.

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Don’t use buzzwords to de-escalate a stressful situation

Having had a previous career in law enforcement before becoming an accountant, Con feels there is a lot to be said about following your gut instinct with clients and co-workers to gauge any potentially stressful situations. If a situation becomes tense within a conversation, he suggests first and foremost: don’t use buzzwords to try and de-escalate a stressful interaction.

Miller feels that sometimes in a stressful situation with a client, it’s easy to fall back on those muscle memory reactions where you might say the wrong thing. Often as accountants, we feel that we are always supposed to be correct, so we automatically have the urge to be defensive when questions come up from clients. In the moment, when the problem is there in front of you, that is not the time to talk about who is right. The important thing is how you fix it through good communication.

Breathing can help manage stress in your accounting firm

Con feels that one of the biggest tips for calming down a stressful situation is your breath. It might sound odd, but the first thing you need to do is breathe, and then get the other person to breathe.

He suggests if you want somebody to calm down, don’t tell them to calm down. Instead, suggest you both sit down for a second, take a deep breath, and work together to figure out the solution.

By reassuring your concern and your care for that person, you can work through it together. When you have a business relationship, be it with a client or a co-worker, you have to figure out ways to work through that relationship together. Paul adds that he thinks it’s very important to know one of the ways to quickly get someone off the fence in a de-escalation process is to remind them you’re both on the same team. Instead of being divided on the issue, figure out how you can pull together and avoid issues coming up again.

Keep a cool head when dealing with clients

Another way to keep the situation from escalating is by not raising your voice. When people get upset, human nature might make them get louder and talk faster. If you’re in this situation and recognize that it’s potentially volatile, you absolutely cannot raise your voice. You can calm someone down solely by maintaining neutral and staying calm. Take that breath and keep your verbal canter going in a calm voice to bring everyone around you back down to your level. It’s a simple but viable way to keep stress low when nurturing those client relationships.

Managing stress with co-workers

One of the things that Con likes to do is try to model the right behavior to avoid stress within the firm. Because you have a relationship with your staff, ideally you know them. However, if you’re joking around at the water cooler, what are the people down the hall hearing?

Con feels there is a right time and place for everything. A comment may come across as joking, but if someone feels overburdened or that they aren’t being treated right, he doesn’t want to create a disrespectful culture in his firm. He approaches staff with an optimistic attitude and team approach by asking them to be mindful about continuing to lift fellow staff up.  He asks that they try to nip some of those negative comments in the bud, setting a clear expectation from a firm culture perspective.

Con’s motto in his firm is ‘if you see something, say something’. Meaning, if you see somebody handling stress poorly in your firm and it’s clear there is a problem that is happening or about to happen – you need to say something.

Often, that is the opposite of what I see in a lot of firms. Generally speaking, many accounting firm cultures are non-confrontational in nature. I’m not suggesting that we ought to create confrontation. There are not many firm cultures where you see people going in challenging one another; instead, we wait for someone else to initiate the conversation. Often when we see someone who is down or frustrated, we don’t say anything. We might go say something to somebody else, but that is the opposite of what we want to foster.

The impact of positive peer pressure

Con trains staff in his firm to use what he calls “positive peer pressure”. He feels that negative peer almost always leads people down the wrong road. However, there is a flip side to that coin which is positive peer pressure. What we need to do is pay attention to examples of positive peer pressure by noticing things you say (or have said) to inspire another person to do something well. Ask yourself how you motivated coworkers to rally around the same goal or mission and continue to feed those positive influences.

You can apply positive peer pressure to de-escalating situations as well. This works because it encourages others to stay away from the negative and to be more accountable. That influence has the power to change an entire firm’s culture. Positive peer pressure can also open up avenues for advisory services with clients if they are overloaded and need help in advisory areas.

What we need to make sure we’re getting from this conversation is that the degree of a client or staff member being ‘a little bit stressed’ to ‘this is going to cause major problems’, does not happen overnight. When we sit back and reflect on times we’ve missed the escalation of stress along the way, we didn’t miss it yesterday. We missed it a month ago and we chose to ignore it (or were too busy to have the conversation), and this causes the pressure of stress to build.

It takes courage to bring those client and coworker relationships to a deeper level or help another human do something better along the way. You must allow yourself to be a little vulnerable in those situations. It’s often difficult, but you have to pay attention and keep on the positive side in order to de-escalate stress, feed the culture of the firm in positive ways, and maintain healthy client relationships. By following these tips, you should be able to manage stress in your accounting firm all year round.


Listen to the “Catching stress and de-escalation” episode of the Pulse of the Practice podcast on your preferred platform (Google Play, Apple, Spotify, Stitcher) or here.




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