The status of work-life balance issue in the accounting profession

Accounting professionals often face significant work-life balance issues, especially in the public accounting profession. In addition, members of the accounting profession are at a higher risk of job burnout compared to other professions. In this article, we will discuss results of a study performed in relation to work-life balance of accounting professionals (certified public accountants, CPAs).

1. Current state of work-life balance in the accounting profession

Work-life balance is a buzz word that has been in existence for a while.  It is probably not even appropriate to call it a buzz word anymore; however, it is still a very relevant and important topic.

Work-life balance became more important than compensation for AICPA members (2004); this provides some insight about how CPAs feel about this topic.  For the purpose of our discussion work-life balance is composed of work-family conflict and job burnout.

A recent study was undertaken to dive into this topic and analyze it from different angles.  If you are interested in looking up more details, the study is called “A Contemporary Analysis of Accounting Professionals’ Work-Life Balance” Accounting Horizons 2016.

The study authors surveyed 1,063 practicing certified public accountants (CPAs) to determine perceptions about the work-life balance in light of: (a) Big 4 vs smaller public accounting firms, (b) audit vs tax departments, and (c) public accounting vs industry accounting professionals.  Work-life balance is analyzed in relation to alternative work arrangements.

This study discriminates between support for and viability of alternative work arrangements. In this context, support for means an employer’s support for such arrangements while viability of means an accounting professional’s perception of the ability to utilize such arrangements and still maintain a meaningful career.  Alternative work arrangements include:

  1. Flexible schedules (i.e., employees can start and end their work hours at different times, but most employees still work certain standard hours).
  2. Part-time work (i.e., employees only work a part of a typical work week).
  3. Telecommuting (i.e., employees work from offsite locations, remote work).
  4. Compressed work weeks (i.e., employees work longer hours in fewer days).

The results of this study were as follows:

  • All public accounting firms provide support for alternative work arrangements; however, employees of Big 4 accounting firms have a perception of lower viability of such arrangements.  This is not a surprising observation (e.g., due to greater commercialism of Big 4 firms – see below).  According to some research, even though Big 4 accounting firms publicize support for alternative work arrangements, actual support may not be as “advertised.”  Moreover, Big 4 clients are usually large publicly traded companies which impose strict deadlines and unique challenges that result in fewer options for taking advantage of alternative work arrangements.
  • There are no differences in perceptions of audit or tax professionals.  This is not a surprising result (e.g., both have their “busy” seasons and demanding schedules).
  • There is a very small difference in work-life balance perceptions among CPAs in public accounting and industry.  This may be somewhat surprising; for example, one of the “perks” of switching from public accounting to industry might be better work-life balance.

It is interesting that the authors mention a more commercialized nature of Big 4 accounting firms while smaller public accounting firms tend to maintain their professionalism as a priority.  In this sense, commercialization refers to tendencies to prioritize revenue generation, new clients, and more budget control.  Professionalism, on the other hand, is aimed at protecting the public interest and technical expertise. It is not surprising, therefore, that employees of Big 4 firms feel they can’t take full advantage of alternative work arrangements while employees of smaller accounting firms don’t feel that way.

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