Stress can worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, premature aging, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, headaches, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma. For tax and accounting professionals, the effects of this stress are seen most clearly during tax season, and especially leading up to the filing deadline, when the workflow can ramp up to 80 work hours per week and preparers abandon their normally sane habits of diet, exercise, and sleep. Further complicating the situation is that tax season comes at the same time as the transition from winter to spring, which means shifting from cold to warm weather and adjusting to Daylight Savings Time.
Not all of the effects are direct. Stress causes the body to release elevated levels of cholesterol, and triglycerides, contributing to coronary artery disease. Stress also affects relationships with staff and clients, making people more irritable, thus reducing the ability to think clearly.
Sadly, few of the recommended steps to reduce stress are appropriate for tax season. Most focus on long-term solutions, but tax season is – at most – 14 weeks long. While developing good, healthy habits that you stick to all year is a great idea, life can get pretty hectic during the busiest parts of filing season. Sometimes you need a shot-in-the-arm strategy to manage the chaos of conflicting client schedules, teetering stacks of IRS forms, and the specter of 11th hour filers.
These stress relievers focus on things that will pay dividends almost immediately and continue to provide benefits well after the noise of April 18 (or April 19 for some of you) dies down:
- Disconnect from technology at night – Sleep and stress tend to cause a vicious cycle – if you’re stressed, then you can’t sleep, which makes you ill-prepared to handle the stressors of the next day, leading to more stress. To relieve stress at night, disconnect from technology as much as possible at least an hour before bedtime. It’s not just that email and other communications keep you revved up – even video games and social media use flashing visuals and sounds that may keep your brain engaged rather than relaxed.
- Sleep during the day. A simple power nap has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, which are hormones our bodies produce to counter the effects of stress. Pick a location where you won’t be disturbed, set an alarm for 30 – 45 minutes, put your phones on hold and relax. According to the Mayo Clinic, an afternoon power nap will reduce fatigue, increase alertness, improve your mood, and improve performance -- including better memory.
- Practice paced breathing. This is one of the simplest stress relievers, and it requires little to no practice. Simply inhale slowly through your nose, hold your breath for five seconds, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Closing your eyes may help as well. Deep breathing lowers your blood pressure and sends oxygen to your body – both of which will reduce stress.
- Avoid making major life decisions. Major life decisions, no matter how joyous, add more stress to you and your family. Major purchases, moving to a new home, taking on new responsibilities and other key decisions can wait until after tax season. Let your family or associates know that you are not rejecting the decision, but merely deferring it until you have more time to gather their input.
- Spend time with friends and family. It’s not possible to take every weekend off during tax season – after all, some tax preparers have clients that need to be served on the weekend. Conversely, you can take off a few evenings, or an occasional weekend, to maintain relationships with friends and family. Simple re-connecting with family will reduce stress.
- Learn Tai-Chi. People practice many variations of Tai-Chi around the world, emphasizing on difference aspects of this discipline: self-defense, competitive demonstrations, and – most commonly – as a low-impact, stress-reducing exercise routine. The National Institutes of Health found that the slow, controlled movements of Tai Chi reduced chronic pain and improved balance and general health. Tai chi may also improve cognitive performance in the elderly.
- Stop multitasking. According to some studies, only 2% of participants can effectively multitask. Since so few of us really multitask well – and striving to do so can lead to little more than aggravation, errors, and increased stress – it’s time to accept monotasking as the new norm. Need another reason to put down the cellphone while you write response emails to customers? A Harvard Business Review article notes that multitasking can cause a 10 point drop in IQ, which, they point out, is the same as “losing a night of sleep.” Focus on doing one thing at a time, and do it well.
There’s a reason why April is National Stress Month, both for taxpayers and tax preparers. But it’s possible, with a few tweaks to your routine, to reduce or eliminate most of that stress that piles on you from January to April.