The long-term success of CPA firms is tied to accommodating client needs. Doing so often means CPAs must work long and strenuous hours. The compressed busy season in public accounting can be especially difficult, as accountants can find themselves working very long hours for weeks on end under stressful situations.
Public accounting has long been known for its high-stress environments and high turnover rate. Demanding and often unforgiving deadlines, client interactions, long workdays, and struggles for work-life balance have been issues CPAs have dealt with for decades. CPAs in public accounting firms often find themselves struggling to maintain performance standards during busy season, which may lead to excessive expenditures of emotional energy and personal time. Firms’ peak workload demands are often centered around the first quarter of the calendar year when substantial numbers of tax returns are due, audits occur, and consulting services are in high demand. Work-related stress has intensified for those in public accounting in recent years due to a multitude of factors, including increased reporting and compliance requirements, public concern over financial accounting scandals, a shortage of entry-level accountants, and of course the disruption caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Work-related pressures often result in anxiety over the consequences of making a costly mistake in a profession where deliverables are often reviewed and second-guessed by others. Stress can result when individuals feel that their current roles are unfulfilling due to repetitive or seemingly mundane tasks. Tax accountants may also find themselves trying to meet unreasonable or impossible client demands, such as lowering tax liabilities. CPAs find themselves working with complex or even contradictory government regulations and codifications. Interactions with superiors and subordinates, as well as with those outside the firm, such as clients or regulatory agencies, create added stress.
Role Stress in the Workplace
An abundance of job stressor research exists in the organizational behavior academic literature. Role stress is a particular job stressor that is related to the role one plays in an organization. It can be categorized into three dimensions: role ambiguity, role conflict, and role overload. These role stressors typically generate negative emotions and can have an adverse effect on employees’ psychological state.
- Role ambiguity refers to the lack of clarity employees experience as a result of unclear expectations set by management.
- Role conflict results from the simultaneous contradicting communications and expectations from work peers and superiors, making it difficult to perform work-related tasks (D. Katz and R.L. Kahn, The Social Psychology of Organizations, 2nd ed., New York, Wiley, 1978). This stressor manifests itself through incompatible demands regarding meeting expectations for performance.
- Role overload refers to the sense of being overwhelmed employees feel when there are too many responsibilities and demands to meet within constraints of a limited timeframe or their personal abilities. Individuals experiencing overload feel that they have too many responsibilities or activities expected of them to complete given available time, abilities, and other constraints (J.R. Rizzo, R.J. House, and S.I. Lirtzman, “Role Conflict and Ambiguity in Complex Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly, pp. 150–163, 1970). Employees experiencing role overload might feel they lack the basic resources to complete assigned tasks effectively; consequently, CPAs may find themselves overloaded with clients and engagements.
Role conflict and role ambiguity can result from a multitude of factors within a CPA firm, including violations of chains of command, lack of autonomy, and lack of timely feedback. A known presence of ambiguity should lead firm management to improve poor channels of communication, and to provide clearer guidance in the form of performance criteria, methods, and job descriptions.
New entrants to the profession, such as recent college graduates, might feel overwhelmed by all the decisions they must make in the course of their work. Unexpected changes and events tend to heighten arousal from stress. Having prior professional experience allows an individual to form a frame of reference for work-related problems, something that newcomers will likely not possess immediately, but rather will have to acquire in time.
Staff members of CPA firms often find themselves reporting to several different individuals. Role conflict can be the result of a team member not knowing which task to be completed first, or the outcome of receiving conflicting instructions and expectations. Firm management can avoid such conflict by clearly communicating task assignments, providing clear instructions, and identifying potential areas of concern. In other words, firm management should strive to reduce, as much as possible, the uncertainty and conflict from potentially confusing work assignments.
Strong communication and interpersonal skills are critical to success in the accounting profession. Although firms can intervene and restructure communication channels in an effort to reduce conflict and ambiguity, there are some aspects of public practice that are inherently stressful, such as inflexible deadlines and busy season workload. Work situations experienced by those in public accounting can lead to stress manifesting itself through certain behaviors. An increase in absenteeism, the number of careless mistakes, a cynical attitude, forgotten appointments, and excessive preciseness are some such behaviors.
Chronic stress is known to cause many serious health problems, both physical and mental. Symptoms could include insomnia, irritability, depression, and anxiety. Chronically stressed individuals are also more susceptible to viral illness, such as the flu or common cold. From a professional standpoint, employees tend to become less innovative and less productive. It is worth noting that a moderate amount of overload might actually induce a positive impact on employee performance, by increasing the individual’s motivation and efforts in order to meet demands. This type of stress, known as eustress, can be beneficial to both the individual and the organization—provided it is in moderate amounts.
If team members have a say in organizational direction, even if they cannot fully control policy, they might experience less stress because of unexpected events and changes.
How Firms Can Mitigate Job-Related Stress
With an awareness of these three specific causes of stress—role ambiguity, role conflict, and role overload—CPA firms can take targeted steps towards mitigating their impact. In general, firms should acknowledge the role stressors play and encourage innovation by soliciting feedback and input from staff members. Firm leaders should then follow up on responses to ideas, questions, or criticism. With their intimate, hands-on knowledge, front line team members can suggest more efficient and effective ways to accomplish work projects and meet client expectations. Many organizations have been inflexible in this area. Although neglect can result in team members feeling ignored or unimportant, invited input can bolster employees while helping manage the role of stressors during the busiest times.
Role ambiguity and role conflict can be addressed through “quality circles.” Quality circles enlist the help of team members at various organizational levels to solve problems. Such meetings provide the opportunity to expose potential problem areas before they materialize. Allowing increased control and permitting organizational involvement can be an effective way to mitigate stress among employees. If team members have a say in organizational direction, even if they cannot fully control policy, they might experience less stress because of unexpected events and changes. Increased organizational transparency may provide the opportunity for enhanced communication and problem solving between junior accountants and their supervisors. This enhanced interaction may lead to closer relationships between supervisors and their direct reports.
Role ambiguity and role conflict can also be addressed through formal socialization of newcomers into firms. Effective socialization should include sufficient training, which might result in enhanced performance through increased job engagement. Firm leaders and managers play an essential role in the socialization of new hires, not only through the initial onboarding-exchange process, but also by introducing newcomers to new work group relationships. Team members must feel that their work is important. Realistic job previews should be conducted for new hires.
In an effort to reduce role ambiguity, any unwritten or implied rules should be formalized. For recent accounting graduates coming from the academic environment, with the structure of a syllabus and scoring rubric, workplace ambiguity can be troubling. If newcomers are not given an accurate representation of life in a public accounting firm, burnout and subsequent retention rates are not likely to improve. Firm expectations should be clearly communicated to promote a structured work environment and reduce role conflict. Working under predictable conditions enable employees to have a good idea of what will happen, therefore reducing the negative effects of stress resulting from uncertainty.
The importance of those individuals employed in middle management “linchpin” positions cannot be taken lightly, especially in terms of the impact on role conflict among team members. In its Core Competency Framework for Entry into the Accounting Profession, the AICPA emphasizes the importance of leadership skills, including the ability to motivate others, facilitate the development of consensus, and chair teams (https://bit.ly/4143V25, 2018). Employees’ relationships with their supervisors are contingent upon a host of factors. These relationships can play a central role in employees’ perception of their role within the organization and overall job satisfaction. Supervisors and managers of junior accounting staff can be integral in developing resilience among their direct reports by providing emotional support, advice, and encouragement.
Supervisors and managers of public accounting firms should focus on transformational leadership skills when managing employees from millennial and younger generations. Anecdotal observations suggest that entrants to the accounting profession may be more intrinsically motivated early in their careers. Accounting firm leadership should recognize this and try to cater to these needs of younger team members. This approach mirrors the AICPA’s definition of leadership skills: the ability to influence, inspire, and motivate others to achieve desired results (AICPA, CPA Horizons 2025 Report, 2010, https://bit.ly/3Uy9pQs).
Accounting firms can motivate employees to improve performance and ultimately mitigate burnout by opening a clear and approachable channel through which they can seek feedback. When managers decide negative feedback is necessary, care should be taken to ensure that the feedback delivered to millennial and younger colleagues is relevant, specific, and actionable. Doing so might allow colleagues to better understand how they can reciprocate their managers for support provisions. A feedback-rich work environment can be most effective, as it can allow access to information that minimizes or eliminates role conflict and ambiguity. Having a work culture that possesses strong social support from both management and coworkers should help accountants cope with job-related stress.
Role overload is likely the most difficult stressor to mitigate during busy season, but an acknowledgement of its impact and some creativity on the part of firm management can make a difference.
Role overload is likely the most difficult stressor to mitigate during busy season, but an acknowledgement of its impact and some creativity on the part of firm management can make a difference. Some firms have placed limits on the number of billable hours worked by employees during busy season. Additionally, many firms now offer alternative work arrangements (AWA) and hire seasonal workers during peak times. Anecdotal observations seems to suggest that AWAs such as telecommuting can be used to effectively reduce overall stress, promote work-life balance for participating CPAs, and help mitigate the effect of job burnout. Reducing employee workloads during busy season remains a difficult challenge, due to the competitive nature of the public accounting industry and a work culture that has embraced working long hours.
From Awareness to Opportunity
CPA firms should strive to reduce work-related stress, particularly overload, by moderating work requirements. This can be accomplished through improved scheduling, implementation of AWAs, and promoting work/life balance. Some firms have begun to offer mini-sabbaticals to reduce burnout and improve work/life balance. These sabbaticals can range from one month to six months and typically offer paid or reduced-paid leave. A sabbatical program could be a potential alternative to more traditional alternative work arrangements currently offered by many public accounting firms. Even without a formal sabbatical plan, employees should be encouraged to utilize breaks and vacations to remain productive and healthy. Other benefits, such as gym memberships, can reward employees of all ages while creating a sense of community.
As stated earlier, the high-stress environment of public accounting cannot be avoided completely. Nevertheless, an awareness of role ambiguity, role conflict, and role overload can focus the attention of firm leaders towards opportunities to mitigate the impact of stress upon the health of its professionals, as well as the entire firm.