How Claire Bartlett combats stress by implementing boundaries at Arden Bookkeeping

Stress can be a very common theme in the bookkeeping and accounting world, particularly during deadline seasons. When we’re experiencing stress frequently

Stress can be a very common theme in the bookkeeping and accounting world, particularly during deadline seasons.

When we’re experiencing stress frequently or in high doses, it can start to affect us in different areas of our lives, not just our mood at work. 

According to WebMD, stress can lead to numerous emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioural symptoms including insomnia, changes in appetite, headaches and agitation. 

This is why it’s so important to have practical measures in place to combat stress in your workplace, whether you’re a sole practitioner or running a practice.

 In this LearnFromYourPeers, Claire Bartlett, founder of Arden Bookkeeping, was kind enough to talk to us about how she combats stress at her practice. 

Hi, I’m Claire from Arden Bookkeeping. 

After having my daughter, I didn’t want to go back into full-time employment so I set up on my own and here we are six years later.  

Initially I set up just to bring some income into the home and have some flexibility to be there for my daughter, but it started snowballing really quickly.

I never had the dream of having an office and a team. That wasn’t what I initially expected, but as time has gone on, the brand and the awareness of the company has grown. We keep getting new clients, so here we are with a team of five of us, going strong.

Why is stress such an issue for bookkeepers?

I think stress can be a massive issue for bookkeepers because we have such a varied clientel and they all have such individual needs. In our industry there are a lot of peaks and troughs with tax season, personal tax and limited accounts that we need to prepare for to pass over to the accountants. 

There’s a lot of deadlines to remember, we need to keep a lot of different people happy - every client is different and wants different things from their accounts, so it’s making sure that they understand the processes that we have in place, it can be very stressful at times.

I think every client thinks they’re your only client, so they constantly expect you to be able to drop everything and do what they need at that moment and obviously you can’t do that when you have 60, 80, 100 clients.

Keeping their expectations managed but still delivering the good service that they want is a challenge. 

What did you find to be the biggest stressors when you were starting out?

In the beginning of starting a business, it’s a very nerve wracking time and you want to be a complete people pleaser so you don’t necessarily set those boundaries that you should. If a client was texting me at 10 o’clock at night, I’d be replying and there’d be a lot of “I’ll just jump on my laptop quickly and get that done for you” and obviously you can’t sustain that.

Now, we have very clear boundaries and working hours, but it’s difficult to put them in place after a client has already gotten used to getting replies from you at all hours of the day, which is why it’s really important to have that in place from the beginning. 

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

A work-life balance has been difficult over the last couple of years while we’ve been working from home and those clear boundaries haven’t been there. 

When you finish at 5 o’clock, you shut your laptop and you go home, but if you’re already at home, the lines can blur quite a lot. 

We’ve been back in the office since last summer, but we’ve always been a flexible office, we’ve always been allowed to work from home if required. We all have young children so I understand you have dance recitals to go to or the dentist etc. 

I think just making sure that at the end of the day family always comes first. As long as the work gets done, family is the important thing. We’re all part time around school hours, so it gives us the time that we need.

I have to always remember why I set the business up in the first place, and it was because I wanted the flexibility for my family. It’s only fair that I offer that to my team. I wouldn’t expect them to have to use holiday clubs and things like that constantly.

It is a challenge sometimes, especially in the 6 weeks summer holidays when we all have young children and need to balance it but it works - you just have to make it work.

Tax season is particularly stressful, how do you set yourself up to reduce this?

Tax season is obviously one of the highest stress inducing times of the year - especially because right in the middle of that is Christmas. We close the office for a week at Christmas so that we all get time with our families, but that means that during the busiest time of the year, we’re putting down our laptops. 

The way that we get around that is, we treat all of our clients, whether they’re a sole trader or a limited company, the same. We work with them each week and each month collating their data from them and processing it throughout the year so that not only do they always have live information on how they’re performing, but also after April we can start working on those tax returns straight away. This saves us from suddenly having hundreds to do in December and January. 

We also spread the payments for the clients. Sole traders often struggle a bit to find lump sums, especially if they’re got to pay the tax and then our bill, so we charge them monthly for that throughout the year in advance.

With MTD for ITSA coming in in the next couple of years, we’re going to have to be working in that way anyway because we’ll need to do quarterly submissions, so it’s kind of given us a head start towards that as well.

We have all of our clients set up on direct debits through GoCardless. It’s part of our onboarding process, so we don’t start working until that’s done. We also don’t do hourly fees, we charge a flat rate so that the client always knows how much they’re going to pay throughout the year. We don’t have any hidden fees or charge for meetings or phone calls, so it’s a very honest relationship between us.

This has also been important for our cashflow, I don’t need to be worrying or chasing clients.

How do you lift morale in the office when the team are feeling stressed?

It’d been difficult over the last couple of years, because there’s been a lot of lockdowns and isolations, to build that camaraderie, but quite often we’ll try and do things like nip out for lunch.

Or if I can tell it’s a really stressful time we might order some lunch in and I’ll say “tools down, let’s have a bit of dominos” or something. 

It think that really helps, making sure that we’re not always eyes down, in silence doing the work, it’s important to build the relationships of the team.

We also use Pixie which helps us keep track of everyone’s workloads. I can see in advance is someone’s task list is growing and they’re not going to have time to meet all those deadlines, then I can just reassign those tasks, share the workload a bit more evenly within the team and help keep those stress levels down. 

What advice would you give to other bookkeepers/accountants struggling with stress?

The first piece of advice would be setting boundaries. Look through the time and make sure that the clients expectations are being managed effectively and you’re not opening yourself up to work outside of your normal working hours. That’s a massive thing and really helps getting your work-life balance back.

Because we deal with so many different clients, it’s very easy to get distracted and pulled off task. An email can pop up and take you down a rabbit hole and away from a task that needed to be done that day, so manage your emails effectively.

I tend to check mine first thing in the morning and after lunch and I don’t look inbetween.

I’ve turned off all my notifications for email and social media so that I’m not getting distracted throughout the day and getting a good solid amount of work done. 

We use that advice for the whole team. It helps us hit our targets and goals without being distracted.

Nothing drastic is ever going to happen in that few hours that you’re not checking your emails.

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