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In 2019, Academic Researchers Tried to Answer the Question ‘Is Accounting a Miserable Job?’

Stumbled across this interesting paper by authors Paul Madsen and Jeffrey Piao today and thought it worth sharing despite its age (2019). Misery in accounting is timeless after all. Plus it’s relevant given the ongoing accounting pipeline problem and concerns about accountant shortages as the paper talks about how the stereotype of “the miserable accountant” actually draws people to the profession for whom misery is a good fit.

The abstract:

Popular culture portrays accounting as a miserable job. Accounting research evaluating the boring “beancounter stereotype” argues that it is wrong and costly because it reduces the appeal of accounting to high quality students and exacts a psychological toll on accountants who are thus stereotyped. In this study, we empirically test the basic question: is accounting a miserable job? We use data from a variety of sources that enable us to measure workplace misery and model it as a function of work tasks and personal characteristics of workers across occupations. We find that accounting work is particularly sedentary, rigid, repetitive, constrained, and rules-centric; characteristics that are consistent with the accounting stereotype and that prior work outside of accounting has shown are associated with workplace misery. However, we find that accounting is not a miserable job. In univariate and multivariate tests, we find that accounting has misery values that are either near the average or are better than average for comparison jobs. This apparent paradox could be a positive consequence of accounting stereotypes, which may facilitate the matching of potentially miserable work with people who are most prepared to tolerate it. Indeed, we present longitudinal evidence suggesting that accounting attracts people with personalities suited to repetitive and rules-centric work and who have psychosocial histories that make them robust to stress. Workplace misery is costly to workers, employers, and society and accounting stereotypes have value if they facilitate informed career selection.

The introduction opens with this quote from Monty Python:

“…our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy they are a positive boon.”

Misery is “a state of suffering and want that is the result of poverty or affliction” per Merriam Webster. It can also describe “a circumstance, thing, or place that causes suffering or discomfort” or “a state of great unhappiness and emotional distress.” In the study, researchers used “workplace misery” to refer to suffering that is the result of workplace afflictions. Just so we’re clear on definitions and what misery is exactly in the context of this paper.

Alright, let’s get caught up on earlier research mentioned in the paper:

Accounting work has long been portrayed in popular culture as boring, rigid, and monotonous (Allen 2004, Beard 1994, Richardson et al. 2015, Smith and Briggs 1999, Smith and Jacobs 2011, Warren and Parker 2009). A branch of accounting literature argues that such stereotypes are costly to the profession because they reduce the number, quality, and diversity of people selecting into accounting careers (Baldvinsdottir et al. 2009, Beard 1994, Briggs et al. 2007, DeCoster and Rhode 1971, Friedman and Lyne 2001, Jeacle 2008, Smith and Briggs 1999), and that accounting careers are more interesting and compelling than the stereotypes suggest (Belski et al. 2003, Chen et al. 2012, DeCoster and Rhode 1971, Jeacle 2008, Warren and Parker 2009). However, other accounting literature suggests that accounting jobs are miserable. A majority of accounting educators and practitioners would not major in accounting if they “were completing their education over again” (Albrecht and Sack 2000, Ch. 4) and CPA firms have exceptionally high employee turnover (CPA Journal 2018). These problems are potential consequences of a widespread “burnout culture” in accounting that, in the early 2010s, caused “crisis level attrition” and a “rebellion” among junior staff at PwC (Nusca 2018, Purtill 2018), and of a mismatch between the personality traits that lead to success in accounting degree programs and those that lead to success in accounting firms (Briggs et al. 2007). Whether accounting is a miserable job is an empirical question that has not been carefully evaluated previously.

In the study, authors modeled workplace misery across occupations as a means of testing whether accounting is particularly miserable relative to available alternatives, comparing accountants against other workers and also against a subset of workers more closely matched with accountants in terms of education. To make empirical evaluations of misery in accounting as exhaustive as possible, they evaluated it in three settings, each of which enabled them to measure misery and its potential causes in distinct ways using large samples of random Americans. What they found after evaluation will come as a shock to Going Concern readers: their evidence suggests that accounting is not a miserable job and, by some measures is significantly less miserable than other jobs and less miserable than would be expected given its characteristics.

Essentially the paper suggests that accounting may in fact be miserable to outsiders were they to pursue a career in accounting however those who are attracted to accounting careers may be better equipped than those people to tolerate these conditions. That’s right, you all are resilient and uniquely built to survive stressors that others would perceive as miserable. Well, that’s one potential explanation anyway:

To summarize, we show that accounting is a job that, because it is sedentary, rigid, and repetitive, has the potential to produce high rates of misery. Yet it does not, at least not according to accountants. A potential explanation is that people choose accounting careers from a menu of options, likely with foreknowledge of accounting stereotypes (Haslam et al. 1998). Given that accounting stereotypes are accurate to a degree, they may protect against misery by facilitating informed career selection. This explanation is supported by two prominent theories of workplace misery. The first posits that misery is a function of the degree of person-environment fit (Caplan 1987). If people believe accounting stereotypes are accurate, those who are relatively tolerant of rigid and monotonous work should be more likely to pursue accounting careers, to find that their accounting job is a good fit and, therefore, to experience relatively little workplace stress. The second posits that misery is a consequence of initial illusory idealism about a job followed by disillusionment after exposure to work’s realities (Freudenberger 1974, 1975). Given evidence that students selecting into accounting degree programs are particularly unlikely to choose accounting because it is interesting to them (Madsen 2015), accountants may be protected against disillusionment because they were never illusioned to begin with. These explanations have the practical implication that accounting stereotypes likely have significant upsides for accountants and their employers, and efforts by the profession to counter these old stereotypes, if they were successful, would likely have negative unintended consequences (Briggs et al. 2007, Jeacle 2008).

LOL: “accountants may be protected against disillusionment because they were never illusioned to begin with.”

All this time we’ve wondered if students are being scared away from the profession by certain cynical accounting blogs and negative Reddit posts and people on Fishbowl complaining about how burned out they are. And yet this research says the exact opposite: the stereotypes — which are mostly true — recruit well-informed individuals who thrive in this environment. The takeaway here is that you all need to step up your meme game and make sure students considering the accounting track are fully aware just how miserable your job is. Hope the AICPA is reading this!

Read the whole paper: Is Accounting a Miserable Job? [PDF]