By David Tuller, MPH
No one would consider being an accountant as dangerous an occupation as, say, race-car driving or coal-mining. But Alan Franciscus, a former accountant at a software company in San Francisco, says the profession has its own set of hazards. He suffered anxiety attacks from work-related stress, eye strain from staring at numbers on a computer monitor, and body aches from sitting at a desk all day.
And then there was the effect it had on his self-esteem.
"Nobody likes accountants," he says. "Often you're at a party and someone says that they counsel people, and how rewarding it is. And someone else says they're an artist, and how rewarding it is. And you say you're an accountant, and the conversation just dies. People look at you like, 'Oh, God, don't talk about your job.' And what can you say? How rewarding it is to balance those debits and credits?"
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 1.2 million accountants and auditors in the United States today. Not all of them feel like Franciscus, of course, who began avoiding parties where he didn't know many of the guests and, ultimately, left the profession. But even those who love the job agree that it is far more stressful and time-intensive than most people imagine.
The recession has contributed to accountant stress, ex acerbated by layoffs, heavier workloads and a drop in employee morale. In a survey reported in Accounting Today, 48 percent of U.S. accountants reported increased stress as a result of such conditions, compared to 39 percent reported globally.
"Most accountants and auditors generally work a standard 40-hour week, but many work longer hours, particularly if they are self-employed and have numerous clients," notes the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Tax specialists often work long hours during the tax season" -- an understatement, say accountants.
In fact, the period leading up to April 15 -- the source of both income and exhaustion -- is the "Christmas shopping" season for many accountants. "I averaged 87 hours per week last tax season," says Arlene Mose, who has her own firm in Walnut Creek, California.
Working such hours -- even just during tax season -- can play havoc with your personal life. Surveys reported in accounting journals report that up to a forth of accountants report severe job-related stress, especially at a period close, when they often confront unrealistic deadlines, ineffective processes, an over-reliance on spreadsheets, and inaccurate reporting, according to Accounting Today.
Bill Lentini, an accountant who practices in both San Francisco and Ashland, Oregon, says he always gains at least 20 pounds during tax season. Although his current partner accepts his frenetic schedule, his previous boyfriend broke up with him over it.
"The last month of tax season I get one or two hours of sleep a night," he says. "I do a lot of caffeine. I seldom have sex. And I mostly eat fast food like Jack-in-the-Box or McDonald's."
This kind of pressure can take its toll on families, according to Bob Stern of People's Tax Service in Berkeley, California. "The stress is transferred to families," he says. "Kids feel that they don't get to see their mom or dad. Spouses feel that you're not there for them. It can massively interfere with family life."
A big part of the stress stems from dealing with uncooperative or unpleasant clients -- clients who forget to mention key financial transactions until the last minute, who act as if they're the accountant's only priority, who insist that they could do it just as well. "The profession constantly challenges your patience," says Mose, "with clients that don't understand, that cancel appointments, that don't appreciate the amount of knowledge and time it takes to prepare something accurately, that can't remember how many kids they have, or how many W-2s they have, or what they paid for stock they purchased."
Although sanguine about his clients, Stern concedes that conditions can be stressful. At least half of his clientele consists of artists and freelance writers who are less than math-oriented. "They just can't deal with numbers and paperwork," Stern says. "As far as record-keeping goes, they don't know how to do it and they don't want to do it. Some take the shoebox approach and throw everything in a little box and then hand it to me. And then others can't find their receipts at all."
Another source of stress, says Mose, are the constant updates to the regulations. "There is also the fun part about the ever-changing tax law," she says. "It changes every year. It changes throughout the year, actually, and some items are retroactive. Then of course the software changes because the law changed. I spend about three to four days each tax season reloading new software onto the network and then testing it with a few returns."
Solo practitioners or those in small firms are not the only accountants who struggle with new technology. According to Gary Boomer, CEO of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kansas, many large accounting firms do not provide adequate training to their staff to acquaint them with newly acquired hardware and software. Boomer, whose company helps large firms implement new technology, says the oversight can cause real complications.
"As you incorporate technology into the accounting process, some of the old steps no longer need to be completed because they're automated," he says. "But people often don't know how to eliminate those redundant processes and have to enter data multiple times, which can be stressful. Because the advances in technology are so steep that most humans are only able to accept a portion of that advancement without some special training, you have to bridge that gap."
In-house accountants in nonaccounting corporate environments face a different kind of stress. The busiest season is often not in April but in the months before the end of a company's fiscal year, whether or not it follows a calendar year. Public companies also file quarterly financial statements and other reports, all of which require detailed and painstaking labor on the part of the accountants.
"There's the stress of making sure you're meeting all the deadlines, and the stress that if the numbers don't look good it can hurt the corporation," says Franciscus, who kept track of both the revenue and the accounts payable of the software firm where he used to work. "A lot of times you have to go back and adjust things, find expenses you can take, depreciations, and all that lovely stuff."
Franciscus left the firm a couple of years ago to pursue other, nonaccounting, interests. Part of the reason, he says, was that he could no longer tolerate the stress levels -- particularly after his company was acquired and the new bosses expected him to agree that his annual goal should be to make no mistakes at all.
"Everyone makes mistakes, but they justified that request by saying that I made so few mistakes that they had to set some harder goals for me," he says. "I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. They were just setting me up to fail, because of course I was going to make some mistake or other at some point."
No one should feel too bad for those who've chosen this profession. Contrary to the common stereotype of accountants, they can apparently be talented at letting off steam. Many of them love to hang out, travel, and regale each other with horror stories about the worst clients they've ever had. "Because of all the stress, accountants are real party people," says Franciscus.
But accounting and tax preparing also have their social rewards. Bob Stern finds a deep satisfaction in completing tax returns for his frazzled, disorganized, free-spirited clients. "They couldn't possibly do it themselves, and they're thrilled I'm doing it for them," he says. "I'm an alternative to the paper mill."
International Federation of Accountants (IFAC)
The IFAC represents over 153 accounting organizations with the goal of establishing worldwide standards for the profession. 212/471-8702
Edwards JR, Harrison R. Job demands and worker health: Three-dimensional reexamination of the relationship between person-environment fit and strain. J Appl Psychol. Aug;78(4):628-648.
Accountants Come Under Stress at Period Close, Accounting Today, May 25, 2010.
Accountants Stress Level Rises with Recession, Accounting Today, May 1, 2009