For far too long, the accounting industry has been plagued with this idea that sacrificing your personal life for the firm is some badge of honor to be celebrated rather than pitied. When millennials showed up in the workplace, we started destroying this concept just like we destroyed frozen food sit-down restaurants, the wedding industrial complex, cable TV, and fabric softener (yes, even Downy is not safe from the wrath of millennials). Still “working vacations” persist and aged partners are reluctant to let it go because back in their day they worked 70 hours a week and they LIKED IT (spoiler: they really didn’t, they just say that because it’s difficult to accept they wasted their life for a second home they rarely get to use and a miserable marriage).
This pervasive problem has only gotten worse due to the pandemic and the ongoing Great Resignation. Prior to everyone quitting their jobs at once, public accounting firms at least had enough warm bodies around to somewhat share the work. No doubt you’ve watched your colleagues disappear one by one over the past few months, leaving even more work to spread across the people who steadfastly remain. If only the profession hadn’t scared people off years ago with tales of long hours, low pay, and working weekends poolside maybe this all could have been avoided. Alas, here we are.
When even the big firms started floating the idea of unlimited PTO years back, the skeptical among us wondered what the catch was. Not for long though, we quickly figured out what the catch was. In a 2017 Journal of Accountancy article about San Antonio, TX firm ATKG switching to unlimited PTO we get a light bulb moment:
“We trust our folks to get their work done,” Debbie Roos, the firm’s COO, explained. “Unlimited PTO was a natural fit between our values and our vision.”
Aha, there it is. The condition that is so rarely met: The. Work. Is. Never. Done.
Surely Debbie meant well when she said that, and for all we know ATKG fully staffs its teams, doesn’t encourage eating hours, and believes in the value of true time off (clearly I don’t know that, so if anyone who works there would like to educate us please chime in). But for the majority of accounting firms and most certainly at the large ones, the work is an infinite black hole of more work.
Add to that, firms count on you all to self-police and put pressure on your colleagues not to put their personal lives ahead of the firm’s primary directive of billing as many hours as possible. They hope peer pressure will regulate time off and that you’ll get mad at anyone who takes what is deemed “too much” time off while the rest of you sit and suffer, thereby shaming people into not taking it. It’s kind of like that tweet going around of a guy who works his ass off at an Amazon warehouse getting angry about people “sitting at home on their asses collecting unemployment for doing nothing” during the pandemic. I wish I saved it, I can’t find it now. Whatever. The point of that is it’s not the people collecting unemployment he should be angry at but rather the people working him like a dog and making him piss in a bottle instead of taking a bathroom break. Same concept here. Pit the people against one another so they have someone to be angry at other than the people they should actually be angry at.
Well I say fuck that. Make PTO great again. Take that mental health day. Look, I’m not just pulling this idea out of my ass because I like making Big 4 partners break out in the anime sweats (I do), a recent Journal of Accountancy article cosigns the outrageous idea that firms should encourage their people to unplug and take real time off. The article’s title is “Protect staff’s mental health with true time off” which is really dystopian if you think about it. The profession’s largest membership association is telling firm leaders to give their people a day off to prevent nervous breakdowns. The fact any leader needs to be told this is depressing.
When staff feel unable to disconnect from work, they and their employers can suffer for it. Burnout has increased dramatically during the pandemic, said Lindsey Curley, CPA, CGMA, senior manager–Firm Services for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA. And burnout has contributed to employees’ leaving their jobs in large numbers over the past several months, a phenomenon dubbed the “Great Resignation.” Focusing on employee mental health and promoting time off are ways employers can address burnout and turnover.
Ensuring that staff truly disconnect can reap benefits. “When employees take time to reset, they return with renewed energy and fresh ideas which ultimately improve firm success,” Curley said.
It’s extra depressing that firm leaders need to be sold this idea of not driving their people to madness packaged in the promise that giving people time off will benefit the firm, but hey, it’s better than nothing. Perhaps if more firms heed the advice they wouldn’t have the staffing problems they do.