Rick Telberg

Working More, But Enjoying It Less

How to cope with busy season: Join the Stress-O-Meter survey panel. See the answers.

February 4, 2008
by Rick Telberg/At Large

Back in the 1960s when the tobacco industry advertised on television, one cigarette brand ran a campaign that asked, “Are you smoking more and enjoying it less?”

Let’s fast forward to CPAs on the job in the 21st century and rephrase that question: “Are you working more and enjoying it less?”

The answers are a resounding “yes” and “yes.” Accountants are working more and finding it really quite stressful.


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“I should have gone to dental school,” laments a mid-level internal auditor in business and industry who feels frequently stressed by a job that entails 60 hours to 70 hours of work most weeks and more than 70 hours per week during busy season.

To be sure, job satisfaction levels in accounting are a little different and often better than comparable professions. Doctors are retiring early. There’s a nationwide shortage of nurses. Law firms are finding it hard to promote associates to partner. And management information systems professionals are reaching burnout earlier and earlier.

The accounting profession, in fact, is responding to the issue of work/life balance more comprehensively and completely than most businesses. It’s no accident that top CPA firms rank high in the Fortune Magazine list of best places to work.

Still, Belinda Oster, who’s with a small firm in Keene, N.H., works 40 hours to 50 hours most weeks and 50 hours to 60 hours per week during busy season. She typically works evenings and weekends just to keep up. For her, the issue is to “try to stay ahead of the workload so you are not always on.”

CPAs are “on” quite a bit according to a CPA Trendlines study of how much accountants work and how much stress they feel (download the free 7-page PDF report). Only about six percent of our CPAs in all walks of the profession work fewer than 40 hours per week, while 58 percent work at least 50 hours per week year round, including four percent working an average 70-plus hours per week.

A whopping 98 percent of CPAs surveyed reported feeling some level of stress, which includes 11 percent who are just slightly stressed, 47 percent who admitted to feeling frequently stressed and almost 10 percent who said their stress was at “a crisis point.”

And despite all the technology designed to make our jobs and lives easier, more than half of CPAs believe they are working harder now than they were a year ago. Public practitioners and accountants in the government sector are the ones most likely to report that work is now harder than it used to be.

As expected, busy season is far more demanding: 90 percent of CPAs average at least 50 hours or more per week during busy season, including 29 percent who say they work 70 or more hours per week.

Public practitioners report higher numbers of hours worked and higher stress levels than CPAs in business and industry or other sectors of the profession. Public practitioners also report by far the most hours worked during busy season.

Mike Morley, operator of a small tax prep practice in Morton, Pa., is among those working 70-plus hours per week during tax season. The biggest demand on his time is clients’ requests for advice.

His best advice to fellow tax practitioners: “Ensure that you provide for a life away from the business, while you grow the business.”

That business tip is on point. CPAs are most likely to be logging their extra work hours during what would otherwise be personal time. For example, almost 93 percent said they work on weekends, 43.5 percent work while on vacation and more than 30 percent work during family times.

The number one reason CPAs are working longer is business growth, which was cited by 57.4 percent of those surveyed and followed in second place, quite naturally, by lack of staff, cited by 54 percent.

Mark Albertz is a CPA with a small public practice firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, where business is up 15 percent from a year ago. He works 50 hours to 60 hours in a normal week and 70-plus during busy season, and he is among those working more, than a year ago.

Albertz notes that he’s the only CPA in the office and, as such, is often needed to verify others’ work. To be sure, he also reported that he’s only “slightly stressed.”

By contrast, a CPA senior executive in industry who says his stress is at a crisis point in the wake of several mergers and acquisitions involving his employer dejectedly remarked, “Don’t become an accountant.”

While we can’t agree with that advice, practitioners’ heavy workloads and stress levels should be a wake-up call to management. It’s obviously a staffing issue and, moreover, may be reflective of how CPAs view their workplaces and managers.

The CPA Trendlines study found that practitioners who admit to being open to accepting a different job even at a reduced salary report higher levels of stress and more hours worked than the average for all CPAs.

And CPAs reporting higher levels of stress and hours worked are more likely to rate their employers as inferior to the competition. Indeed, three out of four (73%) CPAs who rated their companies among the bottom tier compared to the competition reported being frequently stressed or being at a crisis point in work stress. Only 39 percent of CPAs who rated their employers as top tier are frequently stressed or at a crisis point.

CHECK THE BUSY SEASON STRESS-O-METER: Join the study group. Get the benchmarks. Stay informed.

COMMENTS: Questions, rants or raves? Write Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2008 Bay Street Group LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.