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How to Cope With Tax-Time Stress

Experts explain ways to avoid the emotional storms of tax season.

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.

Avoiding Burnout

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.

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