The average finance professional’s relationship with workplace stress is one of cruel irony.
Despite the sometimes-extreme demands of the job they are often most valued for their ability to stay calm under pressure. That means in high-pressure situations, finance professionals are under extra pressure to demonstrate that the pressure isn’t getting to them.
Most jobs are at least a little stressful, but finance professionals often carry a little extra weight on their shoulders, especially during the busier times of year. Not only are they responsible for ensuring the financial wellbeing of their employer or client, but they are also responsible for untangling the web of (hopefully innocent) mistakes that inevitably land on their desk, and often on a tight deadline.
“The numbers on the financial report do lie in that sense, because they can be prepared based on incorrect bookkeeping,” said Nilay Savla, a Senior Accounting Solutions Lead for Level Software Inc. “That makes it very stressful.”
So how do you keep your cool in the most high-pressure situations? We asked a few industry veterans for their best advice.
1. Jam it out
Savla says early in his career he discovered one useful tactic that never fails to lower the temperature in times of stress. “When I find myself in stressful situations I play some music, even while I’m at work,” he said. “I find a lot of peace when I listen to songs; they help keep my mind calm.”
Music can be an effective way to soothe the savage beast that lives within us all, and keep it from emerging in times of high stress. Savla’s favourites include pop groups Boyzone and Westlife, but says anything that can blend into the background and add a little subconscious positive vibes should do the trick.
2. Always be puzzling
Another tactic for keeping stress at bay is finding a soothing hobby for after hours. As a self described “numbers guy” Savla says even his hobbies include some light math, but believes any soothing, low-stress activity can aid the post-work recovery, which is vital in times of high pressure.
“People like to binge watch Netflix, I’m not really in favour of doing that; I’d rather solve a Sudoku puzzle,” he said. “Once I sit down I solve five or six before I even get up, I love to do it. Sometimes I end up spending two to three hours just on Sudoku.”
Even if Sudoku isn’t exactly your cup of tea, finding a hobby that melts away stress and keeping it on standby for particularly hard days can help you return to work more mentally refreshed.
3. Know when to walk away
When you’re operating under a tight deadline or managing a financial crisis it can be difficult to step away from work, but Savla believes you’re not doing yourself any favours by forgoing breaks, especially in high stress periods.
“Staring at your laptop for hours and hours in a row, looking at spreadsheets, its difficult,” he said. Savla actually puts regular breaks into his schedule to keep himself honest, and believes that stepping away from work is often most necessary during those times when you feel most chained to your desk.
“It helps me think about certain issues in a better manner,” he said. “I like to take walks every two hours just so that I feel less stress, it helps me, and of course I keep playing songs the whole time.”
4. Sweat it out and sleep it off
When work starts piling up it can be tempting to let certain aspects of our personal health go by the wayside, but burning the candle at both ends only leaves you in a hot waxy mess. The same goes for surviving on Cheetos or whatever snacks are hidden in your desk drawer.
“If you don’t get a goodnight sleep you won’t be able to think properly the next day,” says Savla, who also exercises for 45 minutes to an hour everyday, and refuses to let himself off the hook when work demands pile up.
Savla adds that you can’t underestimate the power of a healthy snack, either. He recommends sticking with yogurt, cheese, nuts, oatmeal and other nutritious treats over those of the fried, gummy and chocolate variety.
5. Prepare for battle
Whether you’re in public accounting, corporate finance or working at a financial institution few in the industry are immune from its seasonal ebbs and flows. Fortunately finance professionals are often given fair warning before going into battle (or tax season, or audits, or year end, etc.) but it’s up to them to use that previous period of calm before the you-know-what storm wisely.
“I’ve learned to be more self aware of those times when heavy workloads are approaching, and make sure I have a solid team built around me of people that are very capable to help manage it effectively,” said the Senior Finance Director of Our Next Energy Inc., Jody Davis.
Davis explains that while finance professionals often know when that next big storm is going to make landfall, they rarely know how much of a mess it’s going to make, which is why he advises to always prepare for the worst.
“It’s about putting a plan in place to manage the actual workflows with the team, because a lot of variables will be coming at you,” he said. “I find the more prepared I am the less the stress I have.”
6. Find some shoulders to lean on
Like most things in life stress is always harder to manage alone. Davis says the best way to alleviate stress is to surround yourself with team members you can confidently pass to when the clock is winding down, knowing they wont drop the ball.
“You have to have people that you can trust, that are accountable, that are very analytical in terms of their mindset; that ask the right questions,” he said.” If you can have your team to support you it’s actually a massive reduction in stress, because you’re in it as a team, not on your own.”
Furthermore, while it’s important not to over-burden loved ones with the challenges of your job Davis also emphasizes the importance of finding a shoulder to lean on at home.
“For me communicating with my wife and my family and my friends releases that [negative] energy,” he says. “I talk with my wife about all the stuff that’s going on and then I don’t feel as alone going through it.”
7. Make friends with robots
Finance has always been a high-stress function, but it can be much less stressful with the help of some new software solutions and technological innovations. Davis, for one, says his work life has gotten a little bit calmer since he let the robots carry some of the load.
“When I first started my career companies like Float didn’t really exist,” he said. “It’s only been in the last five to seven years that we’ve seen that level of growth in automation and FinTech and tools that can support finance leaders, and its actually made the job, not easier, but more manageable.”
8. If all else fails, find a less stressful job
If you do find yourself regularly struggling to manage the demands of the job you may eventually have to consider the possibility that you’re at the wrong kind of company, in the wrong role, or even in the wrong line of work. Davis explains that in order to excel in this business you need to have a thicker skin than most, as others will look to you to navigate through those storms, and some are better equipped to manage the stress than others.
“There are a lot of different characters in finance, but the biggest thing we have in common is our stability,” he said. “That’s how you become a leader; being more stable and driving decisions with numbers.”
Davis says that is especially true in the high growth start-up world, where he spent much of his career. “It’s just part of the game, and it’s more pronounced in start-ups than it is in larger corporations, because larger corporations have a lot of processes and infrastructure in place,” he said.
Savla, however, says his experience in the industry has actually demonstrated the opposite. “It is indeed a very stressful job, and the bigger the business the more stressful the job becomes,” he said.
Whether you’re working for a large organization with lots of moving pieces, red tape and a lot more stakeholders, or a smaller organization with fewer resources to lean on, a certain amount of stress is inevitable. Unfortunately finance leaders are tasked with rising above the stress more than most, meaning that if you really can’t take the heat, you might need to leave the kitchen; or at least find one that’s less prone to fires.