Spring is the season when the cherry trees and cottonwoods bloom. For Barbara Halpern, owner of the accounting firm Halpern & Associates in suburban Connecticut, spring is also the season when her workweek blooms to 80 hours or more.
Accompanying those long work hours are the colds, migraines, dizziness, and weight swings that plague Halpern and her colleagues during tax time.
“Everyone is rundown and susceptible,” Halpern tells WebMD. “We hate the spring and nice weather. It’s not supposed to get warm until April 16.”
Tax preparers like Halpern may bear the brunt of tax-time stress. But nearly everyone has a reason to dread the 1040 tango. Some hate the math; some hate the feds. And yet others hate having to grapple with one of the great mysteries of life: Where did the money go?
Money and Stress
“Money is a major source of stress on people, and what tax season does is shine a great big spotlight on the issue,” Michael McKee, a Cleveland Clinic psychologist and president of the U.S. branch of the International Stress Management Association, tells WebMD. “Money takes center stage at tax time, even if you might have been able to push it to the wings the rest of the year.”
A 2004 survey sponsored by the American Psychological Association found that nearly three-quarters of Americans cited money as a significant source of stress. Money is also consistently among the top causes of marital contention, says Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and financial self-help author based in Washington, D.C.
The Emotional Toll of Taxes
Often, one partner in a marriage is a spender who avoids any discussion of money, while the other partner is a saver and a worrier, Mellan tells WebMD. The result is resentment at tax time, when both partners must examine how their habits are affecting progress toward their financial goals.
Fear of the government also emerges at tax time. Some clients of financial counselor Karen McCall are so afraid of the IRS that they won’t take even the most innocuous deduction. “They’re paralyzed because the IRS is an authority figure, and if they have unresolved issues around authority figures in their lives, that can cause a lot of fear.”
For some unlucky taxpayers that fear is understandable. McKee says people who have been through audits can suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome for years afterward during tax season.
Herewith, five tips for stressed-out taxpayers:
1. To avoid last-minute stress, file early and break up the job into little pieces, Mellan suggests. Do your taxes while listening to music or whatever else makes you feel relaxed.
2. For filers with math anxiety, Mellan recommends hiring a preparer or investing in tax software. Tax software typically collects information through an “interview” format and the computer does all the calculations.
3. Fractious couples should strategize on ways to avoid chronic money fights, Mellan says. For example, try communicating financial information through notes or other modes that won’t carry an accusatory tone.
4. McCall suggests channeling tax-time stress into a resolution to track your finances more carefully. Better money management is the best way to avoid unpleasant surprises each year, she says.
5. Finally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can turn to your buddies at the IRS. Options include filing an extension or setting up an installment plan for tax payment. For more details, visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov.
Accountants Tally Up the Stress
For David Dugan, tax season used to mean late nights in the office followed by a McDonald’s run. As deadlines approached, a twitch would develop in one eye. “I used to eat my way through tax season,” says Dugan, owner of a small accounting firm in Los Alamitos, Calif. “That’s how I handled my stress.”
Then, about four years ago, Dugan tried a different approach. He started going to the gym at the end of his long days. And he started going to work early, before the office got busy. Soon, he found himself sleeping better and feeling less stressed during the day. Last year he modified his eating habits and lost 40 pounds. He even ran a 10K race during February, well into the tax season.
“Fitness and proper eating is a better way of handling stress than eating and alcohol,” he says.
The stress of tax season contributes to a high burnout rate, especially among accountants working at high-powered Big Four firms. Dugan’s personal fitness coach, Heather Moreno, was once a CPA herself. She joined a branch of the high-powered accounting firm KPMG in 1990 and stayed six years -- long enough to watch all of her colleagues who started that year drop out of the firm, she says.
“I was an oddity because I made the time for exercise even if I had to cut back,” she said. “I saw a lot of intelligent, hardworking people burn themselves out because they didn’t take care of themselves.”
Many accountants drink too much coffee to stay alert during the day and then take tranquilizers or drink alcohol to get to sleep at night, McKee says. They become irritated and anxious and suffer from headaches, colds, upset stomachs, and sore muscles.
Studies performed on accountants have found a temporary rise in cholesterol levels during tax time. Accountants sometimes complain of cardiac problems during tax time, though it’s unclear whether that translates into long-term health problems, McKee says.
Taking It 'EZ' During Tax Season
To reduce employee stress, some accounting firms have offered gym discounts, chair massages, catered meals, and team games. While applauding such programs generally, stress experts say that each person must find the solution that is best for him or her.
Common stress-reduction techniques such as meditation or massage may strike people with so-called “Type A” personalities as boring or stressful, says Paul J. Rosch, MD, president of the American Institute on Stress. For this group, Rosch suggests therapeutic methods such as stress-inoculation training.
Stress-reduction techniques for accountants must also account for the realities of life during tax time, says McKee. McKee makes relaxation tapes for his clients that typically run 15 minutes or more. Those same tapes may run as short as two minutes for McKee’s accounting clients.
Many people -- not just tax preparers -- have an all-or-nothing attitude toward wellness, Moreno says. This means that when a crunch time comes, all the usual rules about healthy eating or fitness go out the window. But if you’re breaking the rules during busy periods, it’s harder to follow them when things slow down, she says.
A few tips for harried accountants, courtesy of Moreno, owner of wellness coaching firm PeopleFit USA:
Reduce, rather than postpone, your fitness program. If it takes too much time to go to the gym, then do light exercise at work. Take the stairs to the office or do squats at your desk. Don’t skip breakfast or work through lunch just because you’re busy. You’ll get fatigued or starved and end up filling the void with junk food. Instead, fuel up at regular intervals on foods like fruit, nuts, yogurt, or hard-boiled eggs. They’re healthy and easy to pack. Don’t use food to relieve your stress. Try stretching, deep breathing, or a little exercise instead.
By Richard Sine, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Barbara Halpern, CPA, Halpern & Associates, Weston, Conn. Heather Moreno, president, PeopleFit USA, Atascadero, Calif. David Dugan, CPA, Dugan & Associates, Los Alamitos, Calif. Michael McKee, PhD, vice chairman, department of psychology and psychiatry, The Cleveland Clinic; president, International Stress Management Association, U.S. branch. Karen McCall, Financial Recovery Institute, San Rafael, Calif. Paul J. Rosch, MD, New York Medical College; president, American Institute on Stress. Olivia Mellan, psychotherapist, Washington, D.C. Friedman, M. Circulation, vol. 17: pp 852-861.