Over the past decade, the accounting profession has experienced a digital transformation as a result of the increased utilization of information and communication technologies (ICT). The profession has also seen rapid proliferation across its functional areas in the use of technologies such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence. Communication has become instantaneous, giving rise to global accounting and finance teams that can collaborate with minimal impediments. Recently, many accountants found themselves working in a virtual environment, some for the first time, because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

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Collaborative software and computer networks allow CPAs to work from virtually anywhere while easily sharing information with team members and clients in real time. However, recent technological developments such as blockchain, big data, cryptocurrency, data analysis, artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation may also create increased stress levels. Today’s accountants must not only possess the traditional skills of interpreting financial information and applying professional principles as well as a wide range of technological and analytical skills. In the AICPA Pre-certification Core Competency Framework, the AICPA emphasizes the importance of utilizing relevant technology as an accounting competency. This includes the ability to analyze data, to collaborate and work productively in a variety of roles, and to effectively deliver information in multiple formats suited for the intended audience (AICPA, 2018, https://bit.ly/3XheptC).

A high-stress environment and high employee turnover rate have characterized the profession for decades. Increased levels of job-related stress have been observed through a multitude of factors, including a market shortage of entry level and experienced staff, increased compliance and reporting requirements resulting from the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and lingering public concern over financial scandals (Kenneth J. Smith, David J. Emerson, and George S. Everly, Jr., “Stress Arousal and Burnout as Mediators of Role Stress in Public Accounting,” Advances in Accounting Behavioral Research, vol. 20, pp. 79–116, 2017). CPAs may find themselves struggling to maintain firm performance standards due to insufficient time, which may lead to excessive expenditures of emotional energy and strains on personal time. Excessive stress levels can have negative effects on firm efficiency and overall productivity; furthermore, prolonged levels of excessive stress can lead to reduced team member performance and personal health issues. Exposure to inordinate stress levels may also lead to job burnout among individuals who are not psychologically prepared to deal with the accompanying pressures.

Career-oriented accountants and financial professionals are increasingly finding themselves augmenting time spent at the office with work completed at home, made possible by various ICTs. Although increased connectivity may be a benefit to some, others can struggle with added stress in the form of work-family conflict and the blending of professional and personal confines. Cloud computing, cellular devices, laptops, and other mobile devices are mixing such boundaries by providing increased access. With a multitude of communication applications today, teams within the same firm may employ various apps to communicate. This can eventually lead to a breakdown in communication where team members do not know which information to find where, resulting in decreased productivity and efficiency (S.D. Parsley and M.R. Wieck, “Technology: Leading Virtual Accounting Teams,” The Kentucky CPA Journal, Oct. 26, 2020).

The Meaning of Technostress

The concept of technostress originated within the field of clinical psychology in the early 1980s during the personal computer revolution. Psychologist Craig Brod defined technostress as a modern disease resulting from an individual’s inability to deal or cope with information technology in a healthy manner (Craig Brod, Technostress: The Human Cost of Computer Revolution, Addison-Wesley, 1984). Many of the same technological advances that have made accountants’ lives easier have also created added stressors, resulting in a paradox. CPAs may find themselves feeling constantly connected, a compulsory feeling of never being fully disengaged from professional obligations. Expectations may arise, whether real or otherwise, in which professionals feel forced to respond to work inquiries in real time, resulting in perpetual multitasking. Analytical thinking and firm innovation may suffer as a result.

Although increased connectivity may be a benefit to some, others can struggle with added stress in the form of work-family conflict and the blending of professional and personal confines.

Exhibit 1 illustrates a conceptual model of how technostress could manifest and the resulting adverse outcomes. Considering the importance of human capital, firm leaders should focus on reducing technostress levels.

Exhibit 1

Conceptual Model of Technostress and Mitigations to Adverse Outcomes

Prior research into the phenomenon of technostress has identified five contributing factors: techno-overload, techno invasion, techno-complexity, techno-insecurity, and techno-uncertainty (Monideepa Tarafdar, Qiang Tu, Bhanu S, Ragu-Nathan, and T.S. Ragu-Nathan, “The Impact of Technostress on Role Stress and Productivity,” Journal of Managment Information Systems, vol. 24, pp. 301–328, 2007).

  • Techno-overload is the result of situations in which information technology forces individuals to work faster and longer. Users may feel overwhelmed as they try to process more data and information than they can effectively handle. Tensions may arise as individuals feeling constantly connected habitually multitask, often responding to requests as soon as they arrive.
  • Techno-invasion results from the invasive effects of information systems in terms of creating situations where users can be potentially contacted at any time. The blurring of personal and professional boundaries often occur, with ensuing adverse effects to work-life balance. Individual privacy may also be infringed upon by firm monitoring usage of ICTs.
  • Techno-complexity can be defined as the complexity associated with ICTs that result in users feeling inadequate and spending much time and effort to learn new applications. New software could take users extended periods of time to learn and to develop proficiencies with use. CPAs may experience added stress and frustration from the use of technical jargon and multiple applications.
  • Techno-insecurity is generated by situations in which individuals feel threatened about job loss due to implementation of ICT or to peers who possess better understanding. Millennial recruits often possess greater inclination and enthusiasm to use ICTs, which can result in older coworkers feeling cynical or insecure about the use of ICTs (Monideepa Tarafdar, Qiang Tu, T.S. Ragu-Nathan, and Bhanu S. Ragu-Nathan, “Crossing to the Dark Side: Examining Creators, Outcomes, and Inhibitors of Technostress,” Communications of the ACM, vol. 54, pp. 113–120, 2011). The millennial generation was raised with electronics and prefer collaborative efforts to individual contribution, ancillary factors that may further intimidate existing professionals.
  • Techno-uncertainty is produced when constant IT upgrades and changes create stress and anxiety for the user. Considering the plethora of accounting applications in existence today, CPAs must constantly learn and educate themselves with the functionality of various software. Failure to do so can result in skills quickly becoming obsolete.

Survey Background

Qualitative data was collected from two financial professionals during December 2021. The subjects possessed more than 34 years of cumulative industry experience. A semi-structured interview was conducted with a manager of a top 40 U.S. public accounting firm. The interview, conducted using an online telecommunications software, lasted approximately 45 minutes. The semi-structured approach was used because it allows the interviewee the opportunity to provide important insights during the course of the conversation while previously prepared questions provide the structure and direction of the conversation. Questions asked were open-ended to gain high-quality comments and sufficient data. A focused interview format helped minimize the methodological threat of reflexivity created by the conversational nature of the interview (R.K. Yin, Case Study Research and Applications: Designs and Methods, 6th ed., Sage Publications, Inc., 2018).

A second participant, a chief financial officer of a regional bank in the southeastern United States, completed a questionnaire containing the same open-ended questions. Ample time was provided for the participant to prepare sufficient and detailed responses. Both interviewees were selected using a theoretical sampling approach of senior management employed in the accounting and financial service industries. A concept-driven approach, theoretical sampling allows researchers to explore problems from various angles while keeping an open mind for discovery of solutions and enhanced discussion (Juliet Corbin and Anselm Strauss, Basics of Qualitative Research, 4th ed., Sage Publications, Inc., 2018).

Practical Implications

Firm management should consider ways to allow users to have some influence on adoption of new technology applications. Such involvement could be from participative management techniques. Participative styles involves consultation with employees and serious attention to their ideas. Participative techniques give employees greater control of the workplace by allowing limited involvement in firm decision making or organizational change.

The management of public accounting firms should aim to understand the level of each contributing factor of technostress and strive to create an optimum level to maximize employee performance. Firms can implement IT training programs to approach techno-overload as a challenge rather than an obstacle. Employees may see technology as intruding on their family lives, blurring professional and personal obligations. A CFO of a regional bank stated: “Having work email access on your phone blurs the line of work/life. There can be some unreasonable expectations as a result.” In order to mitigate the negative effects of techno-invasion, firms can offer increased flexibility to team members; for example, management can allow increased flexibility in the form of alternative work arrangements and allowing employees to choose when to be disconnected from ICTs. Such flexibility has been shown to be an effective means to retain employees at public accounting firms (Elizabeth D. Almer and Steven E. Kaplan, “The Effects of Flexible Work Arrangements on Stressors, Burnout, and Behavioral Job Outcomes in Public Accounting,” Behavioral Research in Accounting, vol. 14, pp. 1–34, 2002). Firm managers could be doing more harm than good by expecting instant responsiveness or after-hour availability from team members.

CPA firms can increase organizational support through bilateral mentoring programs. The onboarding of millennial newcomers can provide firms with a strategic advantage, allowing for a two-way transfer of knowledge between mentor and mentee. The millennial cohort has been exposed to IT since childhood, values corporate social responsibility, and tends to prefer collaborative efforts to independent work. Often, recent college graduates possess a better understanding of new technologies that can be shared with older co-workers to enhance team efficiency and productivity.

Additional organization support can be provided through formal training within firms. In-house educational programs can be expanded to increase user knowledge and skills of new and existing IT functionality. Previous research noted an expectations gap between management and accounting students (Joseph V. Carcello, James E. Copeland, Jr., Roger H. Hermanson, and Deborah H. Turner, “A Public Accounting Career: The Gap Between Student Expectations and Accounting Staff Experiences,” Accounting Horizons, pp. 1–11, 1991). Newcomers to public accounting expect timely feedback on job performance and adequate training, which includes training in the use of ICTs. Boyer-Davis (“Technostress: An Antecedent of Job Turnover Intention in the Accounting Profession,” Journal of Business and Accounting, pp. 49–63, 2019) noted that effective office communication resulted in reduced IT insecurities surrounding technology events. A tax manager at a top 40 public accounting firm noted that her firm had mitigated the adverse effects of techno-complexity by offering brief how-to videos produced by the firm’s IT department. Employees would frequently receive new in-house trainings on how to make the software more functional.

Technostress in the workplace can leave accountants with feelings of negative emotions, thereby increasing the likelihood of negative job outcomes, including burnout and subsequent job turnover.

CPA firms and individual professionals should also consider the pursuit of additional technology-related credentialing. The Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) credential, granted by the AICPA, identifies professionals who have demonstrated specific IT related skills and expertise. The Information Systems Audit and Control Association offers the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) credential, in which recipients must demonstrate proficiencies in technology used to monitor, assess, and control business data. Not only do professionals earning such credentials benefit with increased career and financial opportunities; employers profit by having in-house expertise that can be shared with other team members.

Understanding Technostress

Firm leaders should consider systematic efforts to better understand technostress while evaluating various interventional strategies to mitigate its harmful consequences. Technostress in the workplace can leave accountants with feelings of negative emotions, thereby increasing the likelihood of negative job outcomes, including burnout and subsequent job turnover. Managers and firm partners can use this conceptual model as a diagnostic instrument to assess the negative impacts of technostress within the firm. In an effort to reduce stressors, any unwritten or implied rules should be formalized to minimize ambiguity.

The accounting profession continues to be transformed by technological advances. Management’s understanding of the variables that affect job performance, including technostress, is crucial in today’s business environment. Considering the extensive use of information technology within the accounting profession today, it is vital that the effects of technostress are better understood. Although it may be impossible to eliminate technostress, such stressors can be minimized for the overall benefit of both CPA firms and individuals.

Sammie Parsley, DBA, CPA, CMA, CIA, CGMA, is a tax manager at Carr, Riggs, and Ingram, LLC, Bowling Green, Ky.
Michael Richter Wieck, DBA, is an assistant professor of accounting at Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Ind.
Shelly Glasscock Compton, CPA, CGMA, is an audit partner at Carr, Riggs & Ingram, LLC.