Five thousand years ago, a business deal was struck in ancient Mesopotamia on a simple tablet made of clay.
The tablet turned out to be the first example of a written account ever produced and was signed by the first person in the history of the world. Not a king, a chieftain or a poet – but a humble accountant called “Kushim”.
This all happened in a time before Kings, Emperors or power-brokers of any kind; so most humans on earth were farmers, herders and artisans. They regarded their accountants – not as advisors– but as the link between their property and their written records, more like record-keepers. It was a limited role with limited burdens.
Today, accountants find themselves juggling between many roles ranging from trusted financial advisors through to marketers and HR managers. The accounting profession has morphed into a culture that now measures success through a whole raft of specialty metrics ; seemingly setting itself up for anxiety, disappointment, and the inevitable burnout. The profession isn’t just limited to record-keeping anymore; it’s about concepts like finding a calling; pushing the boundaries of financial achievements and self-optimisation.
My intuitions were confirmed this summer, when QX teamed up with Steve Pipe to conduct a survey on the state of the accounting profession. Steve was the world’s most highly-rated accountant in 2015 and is also prolific business author. Steve is well-regarded in the accounting community as a fiercely passionate accountant. Together we put out some simple, common questions to every accountant out there, revolving around the same topic– ‘tell us how you feel about your work.’
We unearthed a plethora of alarming findings which Steve helped us put together into a compelling research report titled, “The Really Bad News for Accountancy Practices and What to do About it.” A sample pool of over 250 senior accountants, who participated in the survey, showed us how our workstations have become our altars and our work has become our new god.
The Cult of Overwork
If I could sum up succinctly the conclusive findings of our research on the ‘state of accounting’ it would be “high-pressure”. It almost feels like we wouldn’t be able to hire therapists fast enough to help every burnt-out accountant in the world.
According to the research: for most accountants, their jobs have become all-consuming with firms trying to squeeze higher profits out of fewer clients and clients doubling their expectations from their accountants while paying lower fees for these improvements.
To make matters worse, London seems to be riddled with “workaholism” due to the proliferation of start-ups offering free food and ping-pong tables to encourage people to stay at the office and pull more and more late-nighters.
However, time isn’t a safe metric for how productive an accountant is. Grinding out hundred hours a week for years , trying to keep clients and the boss happy, is having some serious implications on the productivity and performance of accountants. According to the report, 50% of accountants said they were not happy with the progress of their firm; their work-life balance had not only stagnated but deteriorated.
Signs of Self-Harm
This “high-pressure” is evidently leading to high levels of burnout and we’ve now got the research to prove it. When asked to use a scale of 1-5 to rank how personally happy accountants are with their work, 88% could not bring themselves to give a “happy” score out of 5 out of 5– out of which 50% scored their happiness to be 3 or less!
Adding insult to injury, 67% of accountants have seen their team enthusiasm decline significantly. Most of them don’t even feel motivated or supported to produce better work – against tight deadlines.
It’s Still About People
Beyond the workplace, we now live in a V.U.C.A world where markets seem volatile, our environment seems uncertain and society is complex and ambiguous. In the UK, Brexit has fuelled this anxiety significantly.
It’s the sign of the times that as a profession, a society and an economy we need to find time to cope. Our unique research shows the same – 55% of accountants surveyed said that “doing some good in the world” was important to them personally. However, when we asked whether their firms also feel the same way – 81% of the accountants felt that the firms that they worked for don’t appear to care about having a positive effect on the world.
It’s clear from the report that those accounting firms that work toward bridging this gap by taking action to prove to their people that they really do care about “doing some good in the world”, will unlock new levels of purpose, happiness, motivation and commitment from their teams.
How People and Technology can help Accountants say ‘no’
For most accountants, when their bodies and minds are saying stop; they can’t – either out of compulsion or because there is no one else to take over their work when they need a break. They need to be able to say “no”. They need to be able to say “I’ll get back to you on that”.
A major cause of the problem is the shortage of good people with the right skills and experience. In an increasingly competitive market, many practices are struggling to find, recruit and retain staff. But instead of going out on an expensive search (agency fees are the second biggest recruitment challenge, behind the shortage of good people) to find a bunch of ‘right’ candidates, firms could delegate their non-core tasks to outsourcing providers and work on freeing up time to focus on things that would add more value to the firm and its clients. The staff could focus on long-term business strategies, develop themselves into trusted advisors or even take a holiday like normal people.
There’s a lot of talk about how A.I and automation is going to replace jobs and in a few cases that’s true. However, most A.I is not even close to being at a stage where it can beat the sheer flexibility (or cost) of a human being. But what they can do is share your workload, especially the mundane and repetitive tasks. Besides, we’re never going to run the risk of the bots burning out as well!
For me, it was a little hard to compute that these days “burnout” seems to connect one accountant to another, rather than a shared passion for numbers. Times must have changed but I’ve been an accountant for 30 years and I can tell you that overwork isn’t the centrepiece of an accountant’s identity. Isn’t it better that you sometimes leave work early to catch up with old friends, teach your kids to drive, or get a good night’s sleep? What matters is a great life, as well as a great accounting career… a better and healthier balance