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Stress management for CPAs.

Flipping through articles in business and accounting periodicals may lead us to the conclusion that there are now three certainties in life: death, taxes and stress.

Failures at CPA firms, an uncertain economy and the fallout from the savings and loan crisis are undoubtedly increasing anxiety levels among CPAs. As a result, stress management becomes increasingly important for those in the profession. This article discusses strategies for stress management each of us can use daily. We may have limited influence on events, but we can change how we cope with them.

THE NATURE OF STRESS

Stress is the body's nonspecific response to any demand placed on it, the daily "wear and tear" and the psychological or emotional response to it. Stressors are the external stimuli that evoke physiological or behavioral change in people. The importance of the distinction between stress and stressors was underscored in a study recently completed for the American Institute of CPAs Insurance Trust that examined the relationship between various job stressors, stress and illness (stress-related and general) among a random sample of 1.618 AICPA members The most noteworthy finding was that job stressors, such as excessive workload and loss of control, didn't themselves directly cause illness. Rather, these pressures caused stress, which itself then brought on illness.

The stress management techniques discussed below are intended to reduce excessive stress arousal levels and thus prevent potentially harmful psychological and physiological reactions to them.

PERSONAL STRESS

MANAGEMENT

Stress management must be personal and individualized. However, a reasonable approach may incorporate techniques to accomplish any of the following:

* Avoid stressors (environmental engineering).

* Cope with stressors (psychological intervention).

* Directly reduce stress arousal (relaxation response).

* Vent stress (physical exercise).

ENVIRONMENTAL

ENGINEERING

This is a way of altering one's general environment to minimize job-related and personal stress. For example, when someone's workload becomes oppressive, responses may include transferring positions or even seeking other employment. A more realistic option may be to reduce or better manage the demands in one's present position. The key to successful environmental engineering is reducing stress without sacrificing any of life's rewarding. That means reducing stress from stressors such as frustration, overload, boredom and external physical factors.

An individual becomes frustrated when blocked from proceeding toward a desired goal or behavior. The impediment may be external or one's own ambiguous feelings. Regardless of the source, the best strategy for coping with frustration is to stop fighting the impediment and instead search for and then implement viable alternatives.

For example, consider an auditor attempting to assess the value of specialized inventory when he or she doesn't have proper technical expertise and client personnel can't provide sufficient competent evidential matter. To reduce frustration and the risk of detection, as well as comply with generally accepted auditing principles, the auditor should consider engaging an inventory specialist to assist in the assessment.

Overload refers to occupational demands excessive enough to cause stress. Time pressures often cause feelings of overload. These feelings can be overcome by using the time management strategies, which seek the most constructive and healthful use of a person's time.

Underload or boredom results from feeling insufficiently stimulated. One reaction to this situation is to overcompensate for boredom by overstimulating oneself and then relax by doing nothing. Unfortunately, this only results in further boredom. Challenging activities that are not mentally complex can be helpful in efforts to break this cycle.

Physical stressors can be mistaken for stress reducers. For example, some noise may be psychologically appealing as a distraction, but it can also produce excessive stress. In addition, various chemical and physical reactions in our diets can be the cause of stress.

Nutritional stressors include caffeine, sodium and sugar. People can avoid adverse behavioral changes by drinking no more than two five-ounce cups of coffee within a short period - particularly on an empty stomach. In addition, it's possible to lower sodium intake by as much as 40% by not adding salt to food. Finally, avoiding junk food keeps out undesirable levels of refined sugar and processed flour.

Additional physical stressors include tobacco, temperature extremes and inadequate lighting.

PSYCHOLOGICAL

INTERVENTION

A persistent cause of stress is the belief that one is not in control of circumstances. This perception may cause feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and often leads to depression. To counteract this feeling, one should

* Try to gain some influence over the situation. Even if one has less than total control, it is better than no sense of control. A critical first step is to increase one's knowledge of the situation.

* Try to learn how to predict the adverse aspects of the situation. Open communication between supervisors and subordinates, auditors and client personnel is a way to help increase predictability.

* If prediction is impossible, try to gain some understanding of why the stressful event happens, how it happens and how to prevent it next time. For example, if a firm loses a client, the partner in charge should gather information from the client and firm staff to determine why the defection occurred and what will prevent future losses.

* Finally, recognize and accept the things in life that are impossible to control. A key strategy is to avoid reflecting on past events or actions and dwelling on what one could or should have done.

People under stress sometimes develop erroneous ideas about events or even themselves. The degree to which these beliefs are irrational and important corresponds to the degree of emotional upset and subsequent distress they cause. When upset by suspicions or fears, it's good idea to consider whether there's any support for these beliefs and imagine the worst possible outcome if correct. Careful thought can help reevaluate interpretations and thus reduce the stress they produce. This should involve identifying the irrational belief, seeking evidence proving or disputing the belief, imagining the worst and thinking of positive results one can achieve even if the worst does indeed happen.

Stress ultimately can create hostility in those who feel overburdened or out of control. The primary physiological characteristic of hostility is a significant increase in the secretion of the hormone norepinephrine, which causes a tightening of the peripheral blood vessels and elevates the blood pressure, forcing the heart to work harder. Hostility has been cited as a cause of chronically elevated blood pressure of nonspecific or unknown origin.

One way to reduce resentment, anger and aggression is by learning to feel as someone else feels. The goal is to consider automatically the rights and feelings of other people and thereby minimize unnecessary and stressful friction.

THE RELAXATION RESPONSE

There is no one way to help the body repair itself and promote growth. However, one useful technique CPAs might try is diaphragmatic breathing.

1. Assume a comfortable position. Rest the left hand (palm down) on top of the abdomen, over the navel, and then rest the right hand on the left. It is best if the eyes are closed.

2. Imagine an empty pouch inside the abdomen beneath the hands. Begin to inhale, imagining the air is entering the nose and descending to fill that internal pouch. The hands will rise as the pouch is filled with air. While continuing to inhale, imagine the pouch filling to the top. Each inhalation should last two seconds for the first week or two, then lengthen to two and a half or three seconds as skills develop.

3. Slowly begin to exhale to empty the pouch. During exhalation, the raised abdomen and chest will recede. This step should last as long as inhalation or may last one second longer after a week or two of practice. (Note: Step 1 can be omitted once the skill of deep breathing is mastered).

This exercise should be repeated only three to five times in succession. Stop if lightheadedness occurs. If it recurs after continued practice, shorten inhalation time or discontinue the exercise completely.

Do this exercise several times during the day as well as during stressful situations. It may not produce immediate results, but after a week or two of regular practice, it increases one's ability to relax.

PHYSICAL EXERCISE

Physical exercise is one of the most effective and healthiest ways to diffuse stress. The exercise should be aerobic, that is, it should entail as sustained increase in oxygen demand. It should contain coordinated, rhythmic movements rather than random and uncoordinated ones. Further, it should not put excessive strain on joints or connective tissue. Walking, for example, can serve as an excellent conditioning and stress-reduction exercise.

In addition, the exercise should either be noncompetitive or allow one to "win" on every occasion. Before starting an exercise program, have a complete physical exam, including a standardized exercise tolerance test.

A VARIETY OF STRATEGIES

Those who begin stress management programs should try to include several strategies. Ideally, for example, one might choose one technique to avoid stressors, one to relax and one to vent excessive stress.

This article has presented an introduction to stress management rather than a comprehensive guide. No matter which stress management techniques CPAs choose, it's important that they learn how to cope with normal and unusual pressures in order to be healthy and productive.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

* STRESS MANAGEMENT has become increasingly important for CPAs.

* A PERSONAL STRESS management program should include techniques that are intended to help CPAs.

1. Avoid stressors. The key is to reduce stress without sacrificing any of life's rewards.

2. Cope with stressors by reestablishing a sense of control and minimizing irrational assumptions.

3. Directly reduce stress arousal using diaphragmatic breathing.

4. Vent stress. Noncompetitive, rhythmic exercise helps release tension.

BOOKS ON

REDUCING STRESS

1. Human Stress, R. Allen, Minnesota: Burgess, 1983.

2. The Relaxation Response, H. Benson, New York: Morrow, 1975.

3. Occupational Health Promotion, G. Everly and R. Feldman, Ellicott City, Maryland: Chevron, 1985.

4. Controlling Stress and Tension, third ed., D. Girdano, G. Everly and D. Dusek, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.

5. Comprehensive Stress Management, J. Greenberg, Dubuque, Iowa: W. C. Brown, 1989.

6. Mind/Body Integration, E. Peper, S. Anocoli and M. Quinn, New York: Plenum, 1981.

7. Stress and health, P. L. Rice, Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole, 1987.

8. Stress Management for Wellness, W. Schafer, New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1987.

George S. Everly, Jr., PhD, director of psychological services and behavioral medicine, the Homewood Hospital Center, Johns Hopkins Health System, Baltimore and Kenneth J. Smith, CPA, DBA, Arthur Andersen Professor of Accounting, Towson State University, Towson, Maryland, explain how to combat stress.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article and bibliography
Author:Smith, Kenneth J.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Words:1739
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