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Stress comes before relaxation in the accountancy dictionary

FORTY YEARS AGO the modus operandi for accountancy firms would be ‘clients come first and family second.’ After all, work-life balance was hardly a buzz word back then.

Fast forward to 2012 and you’d expect things to be different now that flexible working has found a place in the dictionary. And accountants from the Generation X and Y generation well they’d speak up if it was all getting a bit tough, right?

Disappointingly, it seems we still have some way to go in the accountancy industry.

According to research carried out last month, half of the accountants (and we’re talking all ages and from newly qualifieds to partner/FD roles) admitted that an increase in hours was having a detrimental effect on their health. Health problems included insomnia, dramatic weight gain or loss and stress related illnesses including anxiety, short temper, depression, aches pains, nausea and procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities.

Yet nearly half of those struck down by work related illnesses admitted their company offered no support through their ill-health and another quarter admitted they’d be too scared to tell their company as they thought it would have a negative impact on their career progression. Just 3% had been offered a coach or counsellor to help them.

Even those who aren’t suffering poor health at the moment accept that giving greater priority to personal interests or family could lose them a much waited for pay rise or promotion.

Yet today’s accountants aren’t any less hard-working than those of yesteryear. Nearly three quarters of accountants are now working in excess of a 40 hours week with a fifth working between 50-70 hours. Nearly half have seen hours increase over the last year with nearly a quarter working at least two-five hours more a week and just under a fifth are now working at least five to ten hours a week.

Even when they go on holiday there’s no respite. Living in the age of real time , means many are chained to Blackberries or iPhones and can be reached even when one is about to go deep sea diving in Australia or recline on a sun-lounger in Miami. A third of accountants are checking their phone or computer for work purposes at least once a day with a further quarter further checking between two-four days.

A third had also had been prevented from attending important occasions because of work including birthday parties, family holidays, funerals, weddings and important school events for their child.

Ironically of course, having a life outside work does produce more rested staff who are more productive (and therefore profitable for their company) in the working day.

Many accountants would welcome the creation of a more structured and accessible career development programme in their firm, as well as coaching and counselling, particularly when they are under so much pressure. Although many believe it will be a long time coming as you can’t change a culture that quickly and it is low on company priorities.

Some would argue that a life of stressed out accountants is only going to get worse unless the profession changes its business model. Rather than providing a service where price is driven by the cost of time, a new business model would be based on knowledge, being effective and charging based on value.

Whichever solution, those running the firms need to take responsibility and act fast. Or else we could see a nation of burnt out accountants and a rising number exiting the industry.

Simon Wright, director of CareersinAudit.com

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