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September 29, 2023

3 Ways CPA Firms Can Make Busy Season Burnout a Thing of the Past

With every busy season, I, and most everyone around me, met the occasion with dread. We knew burnout was inevitable.

It was interesting to observe how attitudes shifted from first year associate up the ladder. First year staff typically met the occasion with anticipation and slight uncertainty. Professionals that had a few busy seasons under their belt ranged from hard-core gloom: “This is going to be miserable,” to those famous last words: “Maybe it won’t suck so much this year?”

By the end of busy season, most everyone was exhausted, both physically and psychologically and just relieved they had survived.

As I experienced this year after year, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Does it have to be this way?” “What if burnout was no longer synonymous with busy season?”

Here’s the big issue I see: When everyone is cranking out work as quickly as possible, everyone is stressed out. When people operate under stress, they are less likely to see opportunities and less likely to look at the big picture of a client’s business. There is no opportunity to think creatively about value added work opportunities. During busy compliance times, opportunities for value added consulting projects are not seen as exciting; they are seen as a burden because everyone is burned out.

I see three main areas that can help make busy season burnout a thing of the past.

  • Streamline and automate compliance work as much as possible. With the influx of technological advances, compliance work is a commodity with low profit margins. If a firm is operating SALY without using technology, this is a missed opportunity. According to a recent article by Accounting Today, “If you look at those Level 1 (compliance) services over the next decade, it’s a slow death.” The work is not exciting for staff, clients don’t value it, and forward thinking firms will continue to innovate to reduce compliance costs even more through technology. By streamlining and automating compliance work, it allows professionals to move out of the weeds and into big picture mode. It allows them to think strategically for new value-added advisory opportunities. It empowers younger staff to think outside of the box in terms of business development instead of cranking out work all the time.
  • Advise as a business partner and train staff to do the same. Once the time spent on compliance work is reduced, this allows more time for professionals to think about and provide high value advice. It also allows for time to mentor staff to develop the leadership skills to do the same. By having a higher percentage of advisory work, clients experience greater value, staff feel more engaged by different types of projects, and the firm makes more money.
  • Focus on the mindset shift. Most accountants are known for being detail-oriented number crunchers who don’t like change. It can be difficult to learn how to think big picture and move into an advisory capacity if it is new and different. Especially if the volume of compliance work stifles creativity and innovation. Where can you possibly find the time?

Here’s a thought: What if accounting firms adopted Google’s “20% time” policy for employees to allow for creativity and innovation? What do you think would be the result?

The fact is that the firms who innovate will grow, retain top employees, and thrive. The firms who don’t and focus on compliance will die “a slow death.” And by reducing the time spent on compliance, perhaps busy season burnout can really become a thing of the past.

Image: iStock/grinvalds

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