Accounting firms are in business to turn a profit and provide a return to their partners. To do that, they need to serve clients. To serve clients well, they need happy employees. But is serving the interests of employees at odds with the profit imperative? I don’t believe so. In fact, I believe focusing on employee wellbeing is essential to sustainable profitability.
The burnout problem in public accounting
Public accounting has always been a demanding profession. According to research from AAT, in 2019. 90% of accountants said they’ve been stressed out at work. In recent years, that number has undoubtedly gone up as the pandemic, the shift to remote work, and the disruption of work-life balance have added mounting pressure to an already demanding profession. The result hasn’t been good for employees or firms.
While every profession and industry has felt the effects of the Great Resignation, accounting firms have seen professionals at all levels of their careers unexpectedly quit, whether they’re retiring, leaving for other firms or for other careers entirely.
Before the pandemic, firms were losing roughly 20% of their talent each year, and turnover has gone through the roof in some firms in the last two years as people are reevaluating their professional lives.
Many firms are trying to improve recruitment and retention by paying people more and offering bonuses. Paying people well is certainly part of the solution, but it’s not the whole solution. If your team members are stressed out, burnt out, and working 50+ hours per week, paying them more is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
Doing well by being well
The impacts of the last two-and-a-half years have highlighted the importance of taking care of not just our physical health but mental health as well.
The boundaries between work and our personal lives have been dissolving for years, and for many people, they disappeared entirely during the pandemic. Unfortunately, people generally aren’t good at setting their own boundaries. As a result, team members are working early mornings and late nights, answering emails on weekends, and sitting in front of their computers for 12 hours a day, days in a row.
That’s not a recipe for well-being, and when people aren’t well, they can’t do their best work. That’s why firm leaders must be more intentional about making employee well-being part of their business strategy.
Here are some steps you can take to start encouraging well-being in your team.
Offer well-being resources and encourage people to use them. Many firms have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that offer access to licensed health professionals, assistance with housing, transportation and childcare, short-term counseling, and more. These programs aren’t doing your team any good if they’re not aware of the resources offered or don’t know how to access them. Enlist help from your talent and marketing teams to educate employees on the resources available and encourage people to take advantage of them.
Develop your conversational skills. Many firm leaders check in with their team members by asking, “How’s it going?” Even when asked with the best of intentions, this question rarely produces a meaningful or honest answer. Many leaders don’t start wellness conversations with employees because they simply don’t know where to start, but it’s important to develop those skills. Let people know that well-being conversations are part of the “new normal” at the firm. Start asking questions about the challenges they’re facing and help them find solutions to overcome those challenges.
Help people manage workloads. Many firms are putting pressure on people to work longer hours to make up for turnover and job vacancies. People who are working 60, 70 or more hours per week for an extended length of time aren’t doing ok, and this situation isn’t sustainable. You need to find ways to leverage technology, process, automation and outsourcing to take the pressure off your team members and ensure they’re doing their best and highest-level work.
Get picky about your client list. It’s time to get picky about which clients your firm retains and which new clients it brings on. Analyze how much revenue and profitability your most challenging clients are providing and let go of the ones that aren’t delivering.
Rethink your measurements of success. As accountants, we tend to go straight to financial metrics when measuring success, but there are many more metrics that can help us evaluate our firms. Look at employee satisfaction surveys, productivity levels, sick days, overtime, and other non-financial metrics to identify potentially negative trends and act quickly to reverse them.
Being well won’t happen overnight. It happens one day and one decision at a time. Start by rewriting the rules on what doing well means in your firm and make sure you’re taking care of yourself and your team members. As a leader, this isn’t an extension of your job—it IS your job. Embrace it, and you’ll set your firm up to be more productive and successful in the future.
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Jim Boomer, CEO of Boomer Consulting, Inc., is an expert on managing technology within an accounting firm. He serves as the director of the Boomer Technology Circles, The Advisor Circle and the CIO Circle. He also acts as a strategic planning and technology consultant and firm adviser to CPA firms across the country. Accounting Today called him a “thought leader who can help accountants create next-generation firms.” Jim is a prolific writer with a monthly column in The CPA Practice Advisor and has been published in a number of industry publications including Accounting Today, Accounting Web, the International Group of Accounting Firms and several state society publications.