Stress and burnout have been longstanding concerns within the accounting profession (Getty Images/Sanjeri)
Accounting professionals are no strangers to mental health issues. As workplace demands grow, a recent research report from the Healthy Professional Work partnership shows that slightly more than half of accountants responding to a 2021 survey report have experienced a mental health issue at some point in their lives.
Merridee Bujaki, FCPA, is a professor of accounting at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University and co-author of the report, along with colleagues Suzanne Paquette, CPA, at the School of Accounting, Faculté des sciences de l’administration, Université Laval, and Darlene Himick, CFA, at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.
Here, she provides her insights into mental health issues in the accounting profession as well as highlighting some key findings from their research.
CPA CANADA: How did this research come about?
MERRIDEE BUJAKI (MB): The original idea came from earlier work I had been doing in the area of women academics. I was struck by the number of women who experienced health issues that had a psychosomatic component. Over time we became interested in expanding that research to other select professions. We reached out to CPA Canada to include accountants in the seven professions we wanted to cover. The others were doctors, teachers, academics, nurses, midwives and dentists.
CPA CANADA: Why do you feel accounting professionals have been overlooked from a mental health perspective?
MB: Stress and burnout have been longstanding concerns within the accounting profession, as they directly link to turnover and the intention to leave organizations. This is particularly prevalent in auditing and public accounting. Many feel these issues are not being addressed enough.
Part of the reason accounting professionals may have been overlooked from a mental health perspective is that the accounting profession is built on masculine norms and a cultural expectation that you just have to tough it out. Also, mental health is often misunderstood as a sign of individual weakness. Therefore, it was not something people wanted to talk about.
CPA CANADA: What are some of the key highlights that stood out for you from the research?
MB: I was impressed by the insights offered by the members of the profession we spoke to during the interview phase. In most cases, they were passionate about the profession, but recognized the challenges that might exist from a mental health perspective.
For the most part the challenges they faced were around stress, anxiety and burnout, which can ultimately lead to depression if they are not dealt with. The levels may differ between employers, but many of the challenges appear to be systemic and stem from the nature of the work, the way roles are set up, the evaluation and compensation models, and work expectations.
The culture of accounting is one that is characterized by long hours. Some talked about putting in up to 100 hours a week during the busiest time of the year. These long hours by themselves are not necessarily a problem. Most people can find a way to cope with the long hours, knowing it tends to be cyclical. In fact, our research showed that about 80% of respondents agreed their work stress is impacted by accounting cycles or time of year.
What is concerning, however, is that we are hearing from people that they had no opportunity for downtime or to reset from these long hours and their work has only become busier and busier. We were told that in some cases, vacation plans are not being respected, and people are expected to be available at any time.
CPA CANADA: What are the prevailing types of mental health issues experienced by accountants?
MB: As mentioned, stress, anxiety and burnout are the major ones, but in our research, responses ranged right up to some very serious issues causing hospitalization, and suicidal ideation and attempts.
It was also interesting to learn about the number of people who go to work when not feeling well mentally. This presenteeism, in which people are present but not functioning in an optimal way, is definitely a concern.
CPA CANADA: What are the most common sources of stress that are unique to the accounting profession?
MB: Apart from workload and deadline stress, the pandemic also brought a lot of additional digital stress and the expectation that people would be available all the time to their clients and colleagues.
CPA CANADA: Are there any differentiators of note in areas such as gender, type of practice, age, etc.?
MB: In the intersection of professional, social and family expectations, women continue to do the bulk of the care work, whether it be for elderly parents or younger children. That was only exacerbated during the pandemic. The combination of high demands at work and at home is problematic.
I was also struck by comments from some women who reported physical health challenges that have a mental health dimension that may make it more challenging for them to work, such as postpartum depression or menopausal changes. These are issues that men would not experience.
Depending on their cultural background, some individuals also found it difficult to meet family or cultural expectations for high levels of family involvement while also working long hours.
Younger accountants, for their part, were concerned about working and pursuing their professional designation while coping with the added stress of exams and courses. It’s a challenging time for them and usually happens when they are beginning to take on supervisory responsibilities.
CPA CANADA: When is accounting professionals’ mental health most at risk?
MB: Based on our research, it tends to be either after a really busy time when they did not get an opportunity to reset, or when they are dealing with unexpectedly high levels of personal demands, such as an illness in the family.
CPA CANADA: Are employers’ attitudes changing?
MB: There is a greater interest in mental health today at a time when attracting and retaining professionals is becoming more challenging. Professionals today have other opportunities and are not shy about moving on to something else. Employers are starting to realize they need to listen and make sure they offer the kind of environment that will attract people and encourage them to stay.
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Learn more about Dennis Trottier’s mental health journey, and why it’s time for CPAs to have a mental health checkup. Plus, find out how to avoid employee burnout, leadership burnout and the negative effects of toxic positivity.