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As an accountant, COVID-19 has been a heavy burden to carry but it hasn’t defeated me

I haven’t done many personal blogs about the impact of being an accountant during a worldwide health pandemic and economic crisis. I am not sure I have had the words, the heart, the strength. But we are now 12 months post the onset of COVID and I feel like I will be mentally scarred forever.

I remember attending an accounting conference in early March 2020. At this stage there were jokes about toilet paper hoarding and we sat for dinner with other conference buddies having chats like this would all somehow pass over without too much of a glitch. Beers were had and I left the conference after two days feeling inspired and hopeful for what 2020 would bring to my practice.

Fast forward 12 months and I feel like I have been through the absolute ringer – physically, emotionally, and I think we all know the financial toll the past 12 months have taken on most small business owners.

I still remember the day clearly when I was driving back from Melbourne after seeing two specialists about the need for surgery. However, COVID was becoming a real force and elective surgeries were being postponed, so the surgery I desperately needed was put on hold until COVID “went away”.

On the way home we got news that there would be forced closures for business owners.

I remember spending the 90 minute drive back to Ballarat having five separate phone calls with clients who I knew would have to close their commercial spaces. They wold lose income and we really didn’t know how long for at this stage.

All of those five phone calls ended in tears. The confusion, the frustration, the “what if” scenarios playing out in their heads, the desire to help but not sure exactly how.

All I could do was listen, shed a tear myself and let them know we were here and we would support them. But even I didn’t really know how I was going to do that or what that would involve.

Would my own business survive?

If ever there was a word to describe 2020, for me it was “scramble”, because I felt that at any given point, when things were feeling under control, the rug was ripped out from under us and we had to scramble around to understand new legislation, new grant funding opportunities, new economic stimulus packages, and god only knows what else.

All this while still doing regular compliance work, and with client’s, employee’s and my own emotions quivering at each turn.

Plus, we had to utilise skills we didn’t really have and skills we certainly have never learned. I am not a counsellor and I have never, prior to COVID, had to have emotionally challenging conversations with multiple clients all on the same day. Sometimes more than once, as lockdown after lockdown affected clients again and again.

Yet as advisors, and confidants, and sometimes people’s only voice of reason, we had to be strong and dependable, when at times all I wanted to do was curl under my desk and cry.

We needed to charge a fee to clients, who had little to no business income, so that we could get them the government support they were eligible for. Yes, our fee was tiny compared to some others, but we had to cover our costs and our own employee wages, or we simply wouldn’t survive. But we copped criticism for trying to “profit from COVID”. Seriously.

We were trying to help clients fight on for another day and were copping it left, right and centre.

We made a loss on every single JobKeeper fee. Every. Single. One. Yet the verbal abuse that we received (both individually and as an industry as a whole) was out of control. We know people were in a highly emotive and fragile state, but if only people could see the toll that kind of behaviour takes on someone.

Would my business survive? I was looking at my stats, my numbers, my bank balance on a daily basis – I had three other staff members depending on me for their jobs. But I also had a responsibility to myself to not put anyone through circumstances I feel I couldn’t get out of.

There were certainly days early on where I just didn’t think I had the strength to get up and do it all over again. I suddenly resented the responsibility that was put on me as a finance professional and at times I questioned if I was the right person to navigate this unchartered territory.

I am an accountant. I deal with numbers. One plus one equals two.

So how could I not know which clients would survive?

How could I not know what government support would be available (prior to it all becoming official of course)?

How could I know how businesses would survive when the government support was not enough for them?

How could I know if my staff were really coping?

Have I mentioned home schooling yet? What a shit show that was.

What if I couldn’t provide the support my clients needed and they went under? Would that be my fault?

Those are huge burdens to shoulder every day. Every day for close to 12 months. Every day those silent thoughts are going through my head. And every day there are times where I feel, ‘it must just be me not coping, as everyone else seems to be okay’.

The old ‘grass is always greener’ mentality plays with your mind when you are working 16 hour days, seven days a week in the hope that your clients, and you, survive in one piece.

Silver linings

There has to be at least one positive though that has somehow come out of 2020, or the past 12 months. I can think of a few, and I hold onto these dearly as I know without these things, we simply still wouldn’t be operating.

I think our team pulled each other (sometimes kicking and screaming) through the past 12 months. We confided in each other more than ever before. With a remote team, checking in with each other is sometimes taken for granted, but it was so super important to really be able to be honest with each other. I think on some levels, we all had moments of pain and struggle. And we were there in full, no questions asked, with non-judgmental support.

I couldn’t be prouder of the team I have created.

The support we have got through our professional memberships and others within our industry has been something like no other. We rallied together like never before. We shared grief on a level like never before. And we had some of the most honest and open conversations (often with other accountants and bookkeepers we have never met) like never before.

We certainly know of other industries that did not have such a supportive network, and my heart aches for them; 2020 was not the year to be alone.

We also know that the 12-month mark of COVID hitting is not an ‘achievement’ in the sense that COVID has not vanished. We saw clusters popping up in Melbourne last month and in Queensland this month. And I don’t know about anyone else, but it puts me on edge every time I hear the updates.

There is a little bit of fear left in me that questions whether or not we will face the same emotional rollercoaster as last year.  Will we be stronger as we have dealt with it before, or is my armour cracked and will I not make it?

2020 wore me down like nothing I have ever experienced before. But it has not defeated me.

It has made me reassess the importance of those around me.

It has shown me just how invaluable the work is that we do for our clients.

It has made me realise what areas of my life need a bit of TLC (both personal and business), and that I need to put myself further up the priority list. Heck, I might even put myself at the top.

It made me realise that what we do is far more than ‘just numbers’. And every now and then, we just need a really good cry.

This article was first published on the Healthy Business Finances blog