The Overworked Accountant: Is It Worth It?
Welcome back to the Stressed Accountant. Whether you’re in public or private accounting, why is it that we tend to overwork? Why are there so many memes and jokes about accountants being tied to our desks? More importantly, is it worth it?.
I have been a CPA in public accounting for over 30 years and have worked for some of the Big 4 like Deloitte and Touche, and Ernst and Young. I started my career in the late 1980’s when men had to wear white dress shirts under their dark suits and women had to wear skirt suits, making sure their blouses weren’t too brightly colored.
We were serious accountants doing serious work. For many of us, working long hours, pulling all-nighters, and sacrificing weekends and holidays had become a normalized part of our job. But at what cost?
In this episode I want to explore the impact of chronic overworking on accountants’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being, our work-life balance, and the quality of our work. I also want to examine the factors that contribute to the culture of overworking in accounting firms, and consider the benefits of a more balanced workload.
In my book, “The Smarter Accountant” I share the story of Joe who was secretly using work as a way to try to build his lack of self-confidence. A large part of the reason why he was working too many hours was that he was trying to prove his worth—to the firm, to his family, and himself.
If you struggle with overworking, you most likely have a family or others in your life who are also being affected by all those work hours. And, just like Joe, I’m going to bet you are also being detrimentally affected in many ways, possibly including your relationships, your health, and your happiness.
While working too many hours has various causes, such as fear, anxiety, a scarcity mindset, a lack of time management skills, and a propensity to overcommit, the one main cause that I see the most when I’m coaching clients is a lack of self-confidence. Hands down, this is one of the most common issues for many accountants.
Even with all the advanced knowledge and degrees, the letters after our last names, and the continuing professional education, accountants still tend to have an issue with self-confidence. It’s a large part of the reason why we feel the need to go after those degrees and those extra letters after our last names—we believe those accomplishments and accolades will make us feel confident.
Think about it this way – we’re in a smart profession, surrounded by a lot of smart people doing smart things. It’s no wonder the majority of accountants suffer from imposter syndrome, worried that someone will figure out that we don’t know as much as we should.
The culture of overworking in accounting firms
Here’s the other tricky thing when it comes to working too many hours—it’s also highly encouraged by the accounting profession. If you think about it, overeating, overdrinking, and overspending are frowned upon by society but when it comes to overworking, especially for accountants, this is rarely met with concern for the accountant’s overall well-being.
If we’re being completely honest, as accountants, we also tend to judge each other based on how many hours we work. For example, I was once walking in the hallway of my office building when I passed two accountants from another office in the building. One said to the other, “Did you see that Larry’s car wasn’t in the parking lot last night?” to which the other accountant replied, “He must not be very good at what he does.”
This badge of honor that has become the norm in the accounting profession might be considered good for business but it’s also leading to more marital, parenting, health, and burnout issues than anything else.
As we all know, the accounting profession is well-known for its long hours, particularly during “busy season” when accountants are expected to work extended hours to meet client demands and deadlines. However, this culture of overworking extends beyond just a few months out of the year.
Many accounting firms have built their reputation on their ability to work tirelessly for their clients, leading to a culture of overworking that pervades the industry.
Factors contributing to overworking
This culture of overworking is perpetuated by several factors, including client demands, competition, and a desire to climb the corporate ladder. For example, clients expect their accountants to be available whenever they need them, often with very tight deadlines.
This puts pressure on us to work outside of normal business hours, including evenings and weekends. In addition, competition among accounting firms is fierce, leading to a need to constantly outdo one another in terms of responsiveness and quality of work.
I’ve had clients email me day and night, thinking that, like a doctor, I was available 24/7. But when I’m coaching my accountant clients, I help them to see that the work we do is important, but no one is going to die if we don’t reply to an email right away; we aren’t doing life and death surgery.
Unfortunately, accountants who aspire to higher positions within their firms often feel pressure to work longer hours to demonstrate their commitment and work ethic. It can become a warped game of “who stayed the latest is the most dedicated.”
When I was working at Deloitte, I wasn’t planning on going back after maternity leave with my first child. But the partner in charge of the tax department didn’t want to lose me so he created the first part-time position in the office.
I was able to work 3 days a week, but when I left at 5:30 pm to pick up my daughter from daycare, my co-workers would comment, “What? Working ½ a day?” At first it bothered me, so I spoke to the tax partner.
I said, “You do realize I get more done in 3 8-hour days than any of them get done working 50 hours a week, right?” He said, “Why do you think I created the position for you?”
Unfortunately, many accounting firms have a culture that normalizes overworking and the powers that be aren’t as forward thinking as that tax partner was. Many of the accountants I coach feel that they have to work longer hours in order to keep up with their peers, meet client expectations, or simply survive in a competitive industry.
The impact of overworking on our well-being
Unfortunately, this culture of overworking can have a profound impact on our well-being. As I said before, while overworking has become normalized in the accounting profession, it comes at a high cost to our physical, mental, and emotional health.
One of the most obvious costs of overworking is fatigue. Long hours can lead to sleep deprivation, which can have a negative impact on things like cognitive function, decision-making, and memory retention.
This can then make it difficult for us to perform at our best and may lead to mistakes or errors in our work.
Overworking can also have negative effects on our mental health. Studies have shown that working long hours is associated with an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and of course, burnout.
For example, I had a coaching client who was an experienced accountant working for a mid-sized accounting firm. She consistently puts in long hours, including working late nights and weekends, to meet client demands and deadlines.
She came to me because of the toll it was taking on her physical and mental well-being, as well as her relationships with family and friends. She was in the throws of full blown burnout and decided to seek my help in finding a healthier work-life balance.
The issue is that we’ve normalized overworking so much that accountants are afraid to ask for help. They’d rather suffer in silence or be in denial about how it’s affecting them physically, emotionally, mentally, and relationally.
In addition to the physical and mental toll, overworking can have a significant impact on work-life balance. When we work long hours, we have less time to spend with family and friends, pursue hobbies, or engage in other activities that are important for our well-being.
The issue is that this can often lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with our personal lives.
And of course the biggest issue with the long-term effects of overworking is burnout. You just have to look at how The Great Resignation has impacted the accounting industry to realize that accountants are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
If you like statistics, here are some you might be interested in:
- According to a survey conducted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in 2020, 61% of CPAs reported working more than 40 hours per week, with 26% working over 50 hours per week.
- A study published in the Journal of Accountancy in 2019 found that approximately 70% of accountants experienced symptoms of burnout.
- According to a survey by the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association, 67% of accountants in the UK reported that their mental health had been negatively affected by work-related stress.
- The AICPA’s 2020 survey revealed that only 43% of CPAs reported having a satisfactory work-life balance which means 57% of accountants struggle to find a healthy equilibrium between work and personal life.
This is why I am so passionate about coaching accountants and why I wrote my book, “The Smarter Accountant” and why I started this podcast – I want to change the narrative in the accounting profession. You see, one of the best parts about becoming a Smarter Accountant is the fact that it becomes much easier to figure out how to have the career and the life that you want.
You no longer have to be at the mercy of norms such as the accounting profession’s tendency to exist on the brink of burnout.
As I shared in a previous episode, not knowing how your unique accountant brain works is like having the most amazing piece of machinery on the planet and never reading the instruction manual. I not only help my coaching clients understand their brain’s instruction manual: I also help them fine-tune the advanced features as well.
Another common thing I see with my coaching clients is being a “work martyr.”. Work martyrdom can show up in various ways, like taking work home so that you can get a jump-start on everyone else, not taking all your paid time off because you’re afraid it will look bad, or not being able to delegate because you’re worried that no one else can do the work as well as you.
Work martyrdom can also be sneaky because it’s often perceived to be normal, necessary or, even worse, rewarded. Thankfully, being a Smarter Accountant means being able to drop the thorny crown of work martyrdom and instead to have the professional and personal life you truly desire.
If you want to be a Smarter Accountant, you need to stop using things like work to make you feel confident and worthy. The truth is that if you want to stop working too many hours, you have to understand your unique brain better and how to manage it.
Seeking work-life balance
The last thing I want to talk about is the topic of work-life balance because I approach it differently than most people.
Honestly, seeking work-life balance can literally feel like a game of chess. If you move this piece here and that piece there, the result should be a balanced life.
Thankfully, in this age of technology there are so many more options for flexibility and telecommuting, especially in the field of accounting. If your current employer doesn’t offer you what you want, there are many other possibilities available which adds even more temptation to move the chess pieces around the board.
But, the most important thing to know when you are seeking balance is that what you really want is the FEELING of balance, not X number of hours at work and Y number of hours at home. Where you work and how much time you work is not the reason that you feel imbalanced.
The reason you want the new job, the new flexible schedule or whatever you believe will give you work-life balance is because you believe you will feel better in the having of it. You may believe that if you change your job you’ll be happier or if you work closer to home you’ll be less stressed.
But here’s the key – feeling imbalanced does not come from your situation. You can work 80 hours a week and feel balanced or work 20 hours a week and feel completely stressed and overwhelmed.
Believe me I get your confusion about what creates work-life balance. I used to think that my schedule needed to be “just so” in order for me to feel balanced but then something changed a number of years ago just before tax season started.
As I said before, I have been a CPA in public accounting for over 30 years so I’ve had 30+ years of tax seasons. Each year I would dread the imbalance I felt knowing all the extra hours that were ahead of me from mid-January to mid-April. But one year, it all changed.
The extra hours, extra work and extra pressure didn’t throw me off balance. I actually felt less stress and had more fun than I had ever had in my career.
What was the difference? I learned what balance looked like no matter what situation I was in.
The benefits of becoming a Smarter Accountant
More importantly, I learned how to manage my brain which made it possible for me to significantly reduce stress and overwhelm no matter what time of year it was, to better manage my time, to get more done in less time, and to not work more than I wanted to. That was the secret.
So the answer to the question “Is it worth it?” if you are an overworked accountant is truly up to you. The most important thing to know is that you have options that you might not think are possible.
I have coached many clients who believed they were stuck doing what they were unhappy doing, but thankfully, once they became Smarter Accountants, they were able to be more intentional and have the accounting careers and the lives they really wanted.
I coached a partner in an accounting firm who was getting burned out working 80 hour weeks during tax season. Like a lot of accountants, she had normalized overworking and was hesitant to set a goal to work less hours.
Thankfully, I was able to show her a simple time management process for reducing her hours but still allowing her to get the same amount of work done. She said she was actually looking forward to tax season for the first time.
I had another client who was a Tax Manager at a mid-sized firm, and was known for her incredible work ethic. She would burn the midnight oil, work long hours, and pretty much put her personal life on hold just to prove herself and be successful.
She genuinely believed that her worth and competence as an accountant were tied to how many hours she spent at the office. But as time went on, this crazy work routine started taking a toll on her physical and mental well-being, not to mention her relationships.
No matter how dedicated she was, she couldn’t shake this feeling that she had to constantly overwork to prove herself. That’s when she reached out to me and we started working together through my Smarter Accountant Programs.
Together, we helped her realize that her value as a professional wasn’t solely dependent on the number of hours she logged in and that it was time for a mindset shift and some smarter strategies. We started by optimizing her workflow and making the most out of her time and energy.
Thankfully, once she got the hang of more efficient time management techniques, she was amazed at how much faster and more accurate she became at completing tasks. She gained a whole new level of confidence in her abilities, which meant she no longer felt the need to prove herself by working insane hours.
She finally understood that being a great accountant went beyond just being chained to her desk. By setting healthy boundaries and prioritizing self-care, she rediscovered the long-lost concept of work-life balance.
Believe me, the results were incredible! She was able to accomplish so much more in way less time, all without compromising the quality of her work. Her stress levels dropped and her overall well-being improved.
By focusing on her professional growth and finding fulfillment outside of work, she truly became a more well-rounded and happier person. It’s amazing what a shift in mindset and a little self-care can do!
Here’s the thing – there’s no reason you need to give up being an accountant; you just need to be willing to ask for help in order to have what you want. When you’re ready, I’m always here to help!
You might have different reasons or justifications for overworking, but if you want a better way to have the professional and personal success you deserve, without burning out in the process, I can help.
Okay, that’s what I have for you today. Make sure you tune in next week when I discuss the surprising way your brain affects your time management skills..
If you want to see how your accountant brain currently measures up, I suggest you take The Smarter Accountant Quiz. It’s the starting point to see if and how you are underutilizing your accountant brain.
It only takes 5 minutes and you can check it out at www.thesmarteraccountant.com
Also, I would appreciate it if you could get the word out to other accountants about this podcast. The more accountants find out about it, the more we can begin to change the narrative in the accounting profession.
The truth is that you’re already smart, but this podcast will show you how to be smarter.