November 21, 2018

Insecure Overachievers Will Always Have a Place in Public Accounting

tax returns prepare deadline

Does the endless stream of work make you want to cry sometimes? I know it is enough to make even diehard auditors buckle and break. Overwork is a hallmark of the accounting profession, and we all know it.

But why?

Surely if you factor in all of the international teams, we have plenty of people to do the work. Why are we still working ourselves ragged? The hours are terrible. The “set for life” reward of becoming a partner isn’t quite what it used to be. So then, why do we feel the need to burn the midnight oil even if we’re not paid overtime and not on the partner track?

Harvard Business Review ran a recent piece called “If You’re So Successful, Why Are You Still Working 70 Hours a Week?” The research suggests that:

Our tendency to overwork and burnout is framed by a complex combination of factors involving our profession, our organization, and ourselves. At the heart of it is insecurity.

Insecurity. Interesting. Going Concern first covered this in ANR and reported that:

Laura Empson writes that after performing 500 interviews, she concludes that, “A professional’s insecurity is rooted in the inherent intangibility of knowledge work,” and these insecure overachievers, “still believe that they have autonomy and that they are overworking by choice.” Sound like anyone (or everyone) you know?

It made me think of when I wrote about imposter syndrome in public accounting back in 2016:

Public accounting culture is a prime environment for young professionals to feel impostor syndrome. High turnover cultivates a “sink or swim” culture. The profession is full of recent grads with little to no prior work experience. It is a recipe for unease.

Maybe that is the underlying thread. Feeling inadequate and insecure, we work harder to keep up with our peers. Freshly hired associates all start on the same day, and maybe that’s not only because it’s more convenient for training. Just maybe it also encourages competition and a keep up with the Jones’ mentality. The HBR article says:

They [professionals in the study] do not talk honestly to their colleagues about their problems, thus perpetuating the myth of the invincible professional, which encourages their colleagues to feel inadequate in turn. If they suffer burnout, they think it is their fault. Their organization and its leadership are absolved of responsibility, so nothing fundamental changes.

The advice the author offers is all right, but not very practical:

Work exceptionally long hours when you need to or want to, but do so consciously, for specified time periods, and to achieve specific goals. Don’t let it become a habit because you have forgotten how to work or live any other way.

I remember a friend at training once suggested managing expectations by not working as fast as possible to get something done. If you take your time when a manager gives you a project, you don’t set a precedent and need to work that fast every day. You’re billed by the hour after all.

It’s too bad the culture of public accounting forces this behavior. The tendency for eating hours and over and underbilling is something we’ve talked about before, and it’s not likely to change overnight.

The problem is, as researcher Laura Empson puts it, you think it’s your fault for not being able to keep up. You feel like quitting is failing and because you’d be washing out of a prestigious profession. Well, until you realize it’s not just you. It’s the work ’till you drop culture celebrating how little sleep you got last night. The performance metrics that encourage skipping lunch so you don’t have to stay late to get your billable hours in for the day.

You know burnout is about to claim another victim when a co-worker quits, and you start eyeing the door. And unfortunately, the system isn’t changing anytime soon since there’s no incentive to improve it. There are plenty of hungry new hires, and the legal system doesn’t think overtime is appropriate, according to a CPA Journal article from December:

Attempts to seek compensation through class action lawsuits do not seem to be prevailing on the basis that staff accountant duties are free from discretion and routine in nature. If firms continue to prevail in these class actions, it seems unlikely that they will be forced to reevaluate their compensation plans and staffing model.

So that’s it. Grin and bear it, or get out. But remember if you’re feeling burnt out, that’s normal. Just don’t ask your coworkers if they’re sick of the rat race, especially after their third caffeinated beverage.

Image: Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

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