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Busy Season Triggers Survivor Guilt in CPAs Working in Industry

busy season survivor guilt cpa industry

Busy season. It’s the hardest time of year for me as a CPA. But I don’t work in tax. I don’t work in audit. I don’t even work in public accounting. I work in industry as a controller.

Busy season is brutal for because of the lies and deception … because any time I interact with anybody in public accounting I have to pretend like I don’t work just seven or eight hours a day.

Busy season triggers my public accounting survivor’s guilt.

I spent one tax season in public — 2009. I was hired in June 2008, straight out of school, into the firm’s technology department, and I spent the first seven months at the firm consistently failing the Advanced QuickBooks ProAdvisor test. Someone told me that I wouldn’t get enough billable hours doing QuickBooks implementation and support, so I’d have to jump on as much tax work as I could during tax season to reach my billable goal.

I was doing everything I could to master QuickBooks to the degree that I wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the firm. As a result, once tax season hit I knew nothing about UltraTax, making me an embarrassment to the tax partners.

The partner whose bitch I was eventually pulled me into his office and told me that nobody wanted to give me tax work because I was over my time budget too often. Apparently, I was so slow at UltraTax they were losing money. Because in CPA firm economics, having a salaried staff accountant not work on anything makes the firm more money than having that same staff accountant do a tax return a little bit slow. Makes sense that a firm would work like that because we’re trusted business advisors.

The pressure to get enough billable hours combined with the stress that nobody wanted to give me billable work eventually messed me up. I went to see my doctor because my heart was racing all the time for no reason. He said I was suffering from anxiety and prescribed Klonopin. The Klonopin didn’t really help my racing heart, but it did make me super drowsy which made me even slower at preparing tax returns which stressed me out even more than I was without the Klonopin.

So I planned my escape, and after working under the direct supervision of a licensed CPA for 2,003 hours, I got hired away from the firm by my current employer.

But that’s where the guilt kicks in. I was able to get out when so many others weren’t. How am I so lucky to be able to watch all three Back to the Future movies on St. Patrick’s Day when the only TV my friends in public get to watch is a minimized and muted March Madness game on their third screen while they enter trial balances in AuditFile?

I feel ashamed that I can take a sick day when I have a little bit of a headache in mid-February whereas my friends in public have to drag themselves in for twelve hours of inventory audits even though they have renal kidney failure or stage five lupus.

What’s so special about me that I escaped public accounting when so many good people — people I respect — did not? Maybe they hate their family and friends, and they’ve found public accounting to be an effective way to avoid them for three months of every year. Maybe they’ve developed Weinberger syndrome (similar to Stockholm syndrome wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her managing partner). Or maybe they don’t understand that their skills are in high demand and that they can get a job in industry that pays just as much with a company whose HR department doesn’t follow the Bangladeshi sweatshop model.

I live with shame three months of every year. Sometimes I force myself to stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning watching Undercover Boss on Netflix just so I can honestly say that I’m also not getting hardly any sleep because of “work stuff.” Not my work stuff, but somebody’s work stuff.

I’ve considered seeking professional help for my survivor’s guilt. It’d be worth seeing a mental health professional for an hour or so every Tuesday afternoon mostly because I’m not really doing anything at work at that time anyway. I’ve even considered starting a support group, but it’s difficult to schedule the time around all my naps.

If you suffer from survivor guilt like I do, just know you’re not alone. I mean, you might be alone when you take a long lunch to catch a matinee of Tomb Raider, but you’re not alone in your struggle.

Image: iStock/Andrew_Rybalko