Year-end stress can overwhelm even the most experienced finance professional. Here are my top tips for staying calm, focused and productive during this taxing time.
Having worked with dozens of CFOs and in-house accountants over the years, I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it can be to navigate a financial year-end.
The ‘year-end stretch’ brings long hours, complex tasks, and the unrelenting expectation to do things both quickly and accurately. This unique combination of pressures can easily overwhelm even more experienced pros.
The key to navigating this trying time is managing your stress levels. Remaining calm and focused lets you stay productive, allowing you to complete your tasks in good time and to a high standard. Conversely, being overrun by distractions and negative emotions will only make the situation worse.
Thankfully, there is a range of simple things you can do to turn down the pressure gauge. So, to help the many financial professionals in or about to enter this taxing period, I wanted to share some of my own favourite tips and tricks that have helped me throughout my career.
Tip 1) Get some exercise
First off, one of my absolute favourite ways to reduce year-end stress: exercise.
Whether you prefer jogging, going to the gym, or playing a team sport like rugby, staying active is a fun, scientifically proven way to improve your mood. And escape the office!
The NHS recommends that adults do “150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week”. That works out to a little over 20 minutes of exercise per day. Which isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things.
That said, don’t worry if you’re going to be working on spreadsheets until dawn. According to the NHS, even a brisk 10-minute walk is enough to help you relax. So hopefully you can find time to add a quick stroll to your morning or evening commute.
Tip 2) Get rid of distractions
To paraphrase a famous litany, distraction is the mind-killer.
According to researchers from the University of California-Irvine, it takes us an astonishing 23 minutes and 15 seconds to turn our attention back to a task once we’ve been interrupted.
To make matters worse, the researchers also found that switching between tasks leads to “higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, [the] feeling of time pressure and mental workload”. So much for a quick scroll through LinkedIn or Twitter!
The danger of distraction is why, whenever I’m working on something important, I try to escape the office chatter. I usually do this by heading to a nearby cafe. Or by staying at home if I don’t have any in-person meetings.
If you can’t leave the office, try displaying a virtual ‘do not disturb’ sign. Tell your more talkative colleagues that you’re busy until some set time later.
Candid conversations like this might be uncomfortable at first. But in this world of constant interference, we need to protect our focus.
When possible I will also disable my phone notifications. And close apps like Slack or Mail that will ping me with new messages.
Closing messaging apps might sound extreme. But according to another study, seeing or hearing a notification is enough to knock us off our rhythm.
If you’d rather leave the lines of communication open, try telling your colleagues that they can reach you through one particular channel – perhaps on the phone – but only when they have something urgent to discuss.
That way, you know anything coming in over Slack or Microsoft Teams won’t need your immediate attention, and you can safely close or mute those apps for a short time.
Tip 3) Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness – the discipline of being focussed, present and conscious of our actions – has gained significant traction over the last decade.
Far from being a self-help buzzword, one metastudy of over 200 research papers found this contemplative practice to be an effective treatment against anxiety, depression and, yes, stress.
There are many ways that mindfulness can help you stay calm and productive during the year-end stretch. Below are a couple of techniques that work for me. But I’m far from an expert.
In terms of how I use mindfulness, I sometimes like to start my morning with a couple of minutes of mindful breathing. This involves focusing your mind on the feeling of your breath while blocking out other distractions.
Many people experience stress just after waking up. But this simple yet soothing practice can help you enter a positive state of mind before a busy day.
In the office, I like to practice being ‘consciously present’. This might sound a little mystic. But really it just means being aware of your thoughts and of when your mind starts to wander. If you do find your attention straying, simply acknowledge whatever it was that you were thinking about, then shift your focus back to your work.
Finally, when I’m browsing my email and Slack, I consciously try to focus on messages that I know are truly important.
I will notice spam and other notifications. But instead of clicking on anything with a seductive subject line, I’ll make a deliberate decision to ignore anything that might create an unwanted distraction.
Tip 4) Give yourself something to look forward to
My next tip is to give yourself something to look forward to once you’ve completed the year-end stretch.
We’ve all felt the bump of motivation from working towards a holiday or a night out with friends. But according to one 2015 study, this ‘positive anticipation’ is “uniquely able to induce positive emotions both during and after stress, and that this boost subserves improved coping and recovery.”
In other words, excitement won’t just keep you going; it will actually help you handle pressure.
My advice would be to book something in before the year-end slog starts. That way, your excitement will be building at the same time as the stress begins to mount.
Now that the UK is easing out of lockdown, hopefully you’ll be able to book something really special.
Bonus Tip) Invest in expertise
Without doubt, one of the simplest ways to lower your stress levels during the year-end stretch is by working with people you trust.
In many cases, that means bringing in an expert.
The financial world is filled with generalist firms that try to be all things to all clients. But while there is a time and a place for generalists, they are extremely limited when it comes to highly specialised work like filing for R&D Tax Credits.
If your company has conducted R&D in the last year, working with a specialist will do much more than lighten your workload and maximise your financial position.
Thanks to their superior knowledge and the fact their services are purpose-built to tackle a particular challenge, specialists are usually able to work much faster than generalist firms. This speed is especially beneficial during year-end, where it can help you finalise your accounts faster and work through your to-do list at a healthier pace.
In addition to their speed, the depth of experience offered by specialists will also help your company avoid embarrassing and costly mistakes that could land you in trouble with regulators like HMRC.
And in the unlikely event you face an HMRC enquiry or other investigation, a specialist is also perfectly equipped to handle it with minimum disruption and damage to your business.
This extra peace of mind is invaluable during end of year accounting.
Ready to de-stress your year end?
Those are my top tips for relieving stress during the year-end stretch. If you’re a finance professional working on your company’s accounts, I hope you find them helpful.
If you’re ready to remove the burden of filing for R&D Tax Credits while maximising your claim size and avoiding an HMRC enquiry, just drop GrantTree a line.
Our experts are standing by to give you peace of mind.