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Opinion: If You’re Burned Out It’s Probably Your Fault

The post I’m about to share with you appeared in CPA Practice Advisor yesterday, and while it is written for firm leaders and not the grunts at the bottom of the ladder (that’s you), I thought it worth sharing because … well … you’ll figure out why in a minute.

A comic about perspective

It’s been long established that the accounting profession has a mental health problem. And that’s on top of the ongoing mental health crisis in the entire adult population of the United States (more than one in four Americans has a mental health disorder; one in 17 has a serious mental health disorder like schizophrenia [cite]). Things were already dire before the pandemic hit and obviously only got worse from there. If the mental health situation was a crisis prior to 2020, it’s now officially a catastrophe.

Speaking of things that happened before the pandemic, in February 2020 the Journal of Accountancy published an excellent firsthand account of one CPA’s struggle with depression and the profession’s “if we don’t acknowledge it it didn’t happen” attitude about mental health issues. We didn’t know then how timely that JofA cover story would be, but man was it nice to see the long overdue conversation happening. Here’s a snippet from that article written by Mark J. Cowan, CPA, J.D.:

The profession as a whole needs to talk more about mental health in general and depression in particular. Doing so would help remove the stigma and help CPAs who are suffering in silence know that they are not alone. The reality that CPAs get depressed and sometimes need help must become generally accepted.

At the individual level, we need to be looking out for one another. Although our professional skills won’t help us address our own depression, they can enable us to help others. CPAs pay attention to detail, exercise skepticism, and notice what others don’t. When it comes to the well-being of our colleagues, we all must become auditors. We must listen and watch to see the pain behind the smiles and encourage those who are struggling to get professional help.

The truth is there is no accounting for the darkness of depression. The professional toolkit that has helped us succeed in our careers will fail us. But if we seek help when we need it, and help others do the same, we can find a path to the light and ensure that each of us remains a healthy and thriving going concern.

No reasonable person can argue with his viewpoint. Or can they? The CPA Practice Advisor article I mentioned at the beginning of this post almost seems to suggest that burnout — which is defined by the World Health Organization as “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” — is just a state of mind. Here we go:

It’s no surprise that four months of stressing out and working crazy hours can take a toll on your mental and physical health. Add to that a pandemic that caused what felt like a two-year busy season, and many public accountants are over it. They’re either leaving the profession for good or launching their own firms. Public accounting has burnt them out.

After almost a decade of being in this profession, I’m here to say, “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Yes, we can have public accounting and not have burnout. Here’s how.

OK wait. Before we continue, let’s revisit the WHO definition of burnout real quick. Actual burnout is more than just feeling cranky and not getting enough sleep, it has serious and devastating consequences. “Can take a toll on” doesn’t begin to do it justice and starting your own firm to get away from the public accounting meat grinder macerating you into a vague, defeated sludge of who you used to be may not even fix it:

Left untreated, burnout can cause folks to become depressed, anxious, and distracted, which can impact not only their work relationships, but their personal interactions, too.

When stress reaches an all-time high, it’s harder to regulate emotions like sadness, anger, and guilt, which may result in panic attacks, anger outbursts, and substance use.

Any of that sound familiar? I’m sure it does. And I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Reddit asked me the other day if r/accounting contains “mature themes” like alcohol, drug use, profanity, violence, and gore.

Don’t worry I didn’t snitch you out

So what is the author’s solution to the pervasive issue of burnout wreaking havoc throughout the profession? Change your attitude:

Burnout is not inevitable if you have the right attitude and mindset. Remember – you have the power to create a life you love and a firm that you and others love.

If you don’t think so, you have to change your perspective. Far too many people are still living to work rather than working to live. The younger generation isn’t tolerating this mindset and the societal pressure to work 65+ hours per week. They’re showing us that they value health and life experiences more than money

That’s all well and good but millennials are now 40 and we’re still having this conversation about “the younger generation” as if this is some new revelation; this exact conversation we’ve been having since Gen Y entered the workforce 20 years ago. I understand the intention here was not to minimize people’s very real struggles, but we’re in very “gee thanks I’m cured” territory here. By the time you get to burnout, you’re long past the “have you tried changing your attitude?” stage. The burnout problem is systemic, not just something that happens at a few select firms under a couple bad leaders.

wow thanks I'm cured starterpack

The article goes on to recommend a few morale boosters to get everyone’s spirits up and combat that pesky burnout. Just like the above description of burnout as a disease, you may recognize some of these, too:

Your firm can do its part to help prevent these issues by boosting morale. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Plan virtual events, like virtual wine tastings and fun after-hours, to help your team members connect and mingle.
  • Plan Zoom lunches. Gift Uber Eats to your team, and enjoy virtual lunches together.
  • Recognize achievements. Your team members want to feel valued and appreciated. Tell and show them that they are!

Consider the dynamics of your team, the values of your firm, and what matters most to your employees to find other ways to boost morale.

In other words, the pizza parties will continue until morale improves. Surely that will single-handedly solve the profession’s burnout problem. Now smile! Everything is just fine!

The author isn’t exactly wrong; prioritizing the life in work-life balance would go a long way toward easing burnout and making public accountants’ lives something they don’t need copious amounts of alcohol just to endure. But it’s going to take a whole lot more than Zoom happy hours and a handful of small firms that don’t work their staff into the ground for that to happen. You might as well suggest that world hunger could be solved by feeding people. Like yeah, we know. Doesn’t mean anyone’s actually gonna do it. I’ll probably be dead by then, but I bet you in two decades when Gen Z makes up the majority of accounting firm partners, we will still be talking about how the younger generation values their personal lives and here are some suggestions for placating Generation Whatever. That’s if partners aren’t replaced by algorithms by then.

I look forward to the current partners showing up in the comments below to call us all snowflakes and say the author of this post is just being negative for no reason as they do on every other article that calls out the broken mentality of the profession that is destroying mental health and scaring away college students. Clearly this is all my fault for not having a better attitude.

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