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Breaking the Stress Cycle

Accountants are used to stress. Often, the job involves months of heavy workloads and working long hours. Add a global pandemic, changing client demands, and the need to keep up with a growing number of technologies and regulations to the mix, and it’s no wonder many people in the profession have moved past stress into burnout.

If you’re feeling burnt out (or on the way there), I highly recommend adding the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Amelia Nagoski and Emily Nagoski to your reading list.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of burnout can include:

  • Fatigue

  • Feeling apathetic or dissatisfied with your work

  • Headaches

  • Changes to your diet or sleep patterns

The Nagoski sisters know about stress. Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., is an educator and author who travels worldwide to train therapists, medical professionals, college students and the general public about the science of women’s sexual wellbeing. Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A, was an Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music at Western New England University. They claim they wrote the book because they needed it themselves.

Breaking the stress cycle

We can’t avoid stress entirely—it’s a part of life—but we can prevent burnout by knowing how to break the stress cycle.

Stress leads to burnout because our bodies are in a perpetual state of stress. Imagine you sit down to work one morning and open an email from an angry client arguing over fees. Your cortisol and adrenaline spike, and your body enters fight or flight mode.

When our ancestors faced a stressful situation (like a hungry tiger), they actually had to choose between fight or flight. They might run away (flight) or throw a few spears (fight) and celebrate their narrow escape, thus completing the stress cycle.

We rarely get a chance to throw spears or run away in the modern workplace. So instead, you pick up your phone and start reading the news, which is filled with more headlines that get your blood boiling. As a result, according to the Nagoskis, your stress response is in chronic activation.

To deactivate it, you have to end the stress cycle. Eliminating the stressor or “seeing” that the threat is over isn’t enough. You must find a way to let your body know you’re no longer threatened or in danger.

How to break the stress cycle

The best way to complete the stress cycle is by doing something that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply. Running, aerobic walking, Pilates, Zumba, a boot camp class—pick your favorite workout and do it for 20 to 60 minutes most days of the week.

This is why exercise is “good for you.” It’s not about weight loss or having a specific body type. It tells your body that you’ve successfully survived a threat and you’re now safe.

Other strategies for breaking the stress cycle include:

  • Taking deep, slow breaths

  • Positive social interactions

  • Laughter

  • Affection with deep connection (try hugging your significant other for 20 seconds or petting an animal)

  • Crying

  • Creative expression (writing, singing, painting, etc.)

Overcoming burnout in your firm

For firm leaders, paying attention to common signs of employee stress—and encouraging people to break the stress cycle—can help prevent people from living in a state of burnout.

Here are a few signs that burnout has already taken hold:

  • Disengagement. People may stop participating in meetings, taking on new projects or returning calls or emails, or turn in lower-quality work.

  • Absenteeism. Overtaxed employees tend to take more sick days or come in late and leave early.

  • Isolation. People suddenly become distant or get angry when someone tries to talk to them.

  • Overly sensitive to feedback. People may take constructive criticism personally or get defensive and angry.

  • Physical symptoms. Employees have panic attacks, chest pains, or increased headaches and nausea.

  • Decreased productivity. Chronic stress makes it challenging for people to concentrate on the task at hand.

If you see these signs in your people, encourage your team to break the stress cycle and allow time to exercise, breathe, or have positive social interactions with coworkers during the workday.

Stress and burnout don’t just go away on their own. As a leader, it’s your job to set an example, pay attention to your team, and help them get back on track. When you do, you’ll have a happier, engaged and more productive team.


Do you want to turn your firm’s new partners and managers into confident and capable leaders?

The Boomer Leadership Academy is a leadership development program designed specifically for new partners, managers, C-Suite professionals and administrators at CPA firms. Register now so the emerging leaders in your firm can begin performing at a higher level.


As a Solutions Advisor for Boomer Consulting, Inc., Megan works to provide the highest level of client service to existing and new clients through building and maintaining relationships. Her primary focus is on Vendor/Sponsor relationships. Megan is passionate about helping clients excel through Boomer Consulting Services.


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