As the calendar edges closer to April 15, stress levels are rising in accounting offices nationwide. But the frantic pace of tax season isn't just a mental strain; it can also have very real health repercussions, such as increasing cholesterol levels.
Another negative consequence of long hours? We're actually less productive. Overwork and
the resulting stress leads to less sleep and exhaustion and stress make daily work tasks more difficult, including strained interpersonal communication, making judgment calls and managing your own emotional reactions, according to an August 2015 Harvard Business Review article.
But there’s good news too; you have the control and simply need to apply the same planning and rigidity to taking care of yourself as you do to managing taxes. Try these steps:
Put Yourself on the Calendar
Instead of making vague promises for a little down time and then not following through, make a point of scheduling small chunks of time for yourself throughout the day. Sticking with a series of 10- to 20-minute breaks can be much less overwhelming than carving out an entire hour. In addition, research shows that we are most productive working in 90-minute blocks. There are a variety of ways to re-energize yourself during short periods:
- Meditate: Give your mind the opportunity to go silent and shut out the chaos of the day. New research is uncovering multiple benefits that can be gained from meditation. Most recently, a UCLA study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation—defined as focusing attention and awareness on the present moment without judgment or reacting to thoughts—can lead to less insomnia, fatigue and depression. Getting out of your office is ideal, but meditation breaks can be done sitting at your desk as long as you eliminate all distractions. If you're new to meditation, there are plenty of free guided meditations you can find online, such as through UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center.
- Listen to Music: If meditation isn't your thing, similar benefits can be gained by using a short break to quiet your thoughts and listen to calming music. Research has proven that music can help reduce stress and anxiety. Music can distract your mind from work and force it to start relaxing. I've created this list on Spotify that you can access if you don't already have your own playlist.
- Exercise: Stretching your muscles can help strengthen your mind as well. If you can, get outside and walk for 15 minutes; fresh air is a great natural energizer to freshen your thoughts. Stuck indoors? Stand up and shut the door, then find a routine that can help get your blood flowing—try a combination of stretches, lunges and squats. Or if you're tethered to your chair, there are wealth of resources online that explain the most effective stretches you can do without getting up from your desk. Check out this guide from the University of California Santa Cruz.
Whatever your method, apply a similar discipline: turn off all technology, avoid phone calls and close the door to your office. Put a sign on the door, if necessary, explaining that you're unavailable for the next 15 minutes, so that distractions don't find you.
Buy Healthy Snacks
Busy times quickly lead to unhealthy habits, and snacking is a big one. But all snacks aren't created equal. The key is stocking your office and desk with a variety of healthy choices that can actually have a positive effect on your energy. Nuts are a great snack food that can be both satisfying and help to lower the cholesterol that may be rising with your stress. Yogurt, fruit, vegetables and fruit or nut bars are also great options to have on-hand. Avoid sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods, like potato chips and pastries, which tend to lead to a short energy boost followed by a crash.
While technology advancements can be blamed, in part, for today's non-stop work environments, we can also harness technology to help us reduce stress. Cloud technology gives us the ability to connect into work from almost anywhere. And while we need to find time to tune out, we can also embrace the benefits that can be gained from that same technology. Flexible work arrangements can help minimize some of the stresses that accompany this particularly hectic season. If you can work from home once or twice a week, the change of scenery might help your productivity. At a minimum, avoid staying at the office late too often. You can better manage stress by breaking up the day—go home at a reasonable time, disconnect for a couple of hours, then tune back into work for a while with renewed focus before winding down for the night.
Your brain needs time to rest and relax just as much as you do. Don't sacrifice your own health by overworking in the name of productivity. You're doing yourself a disservice, and may ultimately be losing your focus.
Amy Vetter is Global Vice President of Education and Head of Accounting-USA at Xero; @AmyVetterCPA