Date posted: 16/10/2023 8 min read

Work to live, or live to work?

A culture of working long hours is entrenched in some corners of the accounting profession, a challenge exacerbated by a tight labour market that’s left some firms short-staffed. So, how do we talk about unreasonable hours when there are deadlines to meet?

In Brief

  • Regular workflow meetings can help people identify unreasonable workloads.
  • Being able to show how much time should be spent on a project makes the conversation about overtime easier.
  • Matching people’s experience with the right type of work eliminates unnecessary time being spent on a task an employee simply isn’t able to complete.

It’s no secret that high expectations, tight deadlines and long hours can often go hand in hand with a career in professional services, including in accounting.

But speaking up about excessive workloads to a manager can be daunting. Despite evidence of burnout and immense levels of stress in the industry, putting in the hard yards can often be seen as a necessary part of demonstrating commitment and achieving success.

The result of not speaking up is damaging. For example, research from Microsoft in 2022 found that two-thirds of Australian managers report burnout, which is 25% higher than the global average. New Zealand is not far behind with 64% reporting burnout, with the global average at 53%.

The survey pointed to ‘productivity paranoia’ for the elevated numbers – where hybrid working causes mistrust between employers and their teams. Other factors included overwork, long hours, and a reluctance to seek help for mental-health issues. Many people just don’t want to admit they are overwhelmed by their workload, in case it disrupts their career.

But there are ways to address this and some firms are facing the issue head-on to make it easier for teams to communicate when their workload is becoming unreasonable, as well as identifying when long hours may be as a result of inefficiency or a mismatch between the work and the accountant’s skills.

Managing expectations of overtime

Occasionally working overtime can be inevitable in some roles, but there is a big difference between ongoing unreasonable hours and putting in a bit of overtime when needed, says Evan Bateup, KPMG NZ’s chief people officer.

“The nature of this work means there will always be projects with tight deadlines and there’s always a risk that those timelines will be brought forward by the client. That means there will be times where we have some long days to get the work done,” he says.

But consistently overworking people to meet those deadlines is not a sustainable model, he says. Instead, budgeting accurately, anticipating client needs and putting more staff on to deal with the workload for the project is a better solution.

To do that we need to educate managers to identify unreasonable hours and encourage staff to speak up, says Bateup.

“It comes down to individual conversations and when something is taking longer than expected, we want to equip people to help them have better conversations to address any issues.”

It’s a challenge that will only be overcome if there is a consistency in leadership, he adds.

“We’ve been very public with our new deal, which puts a high value on people’s time. We want to normalise the fact that people need a life and we need to put a high value on what that is and what is reasonable for people,” he says.

Josh Hickford FCA, chief executive of the Taranaki Foundation, recalls times where there was an accepted culture of working very long hours in certain areas of a previous firm he was employed at.

“In those environments it can be very hard to speak up. But I think the workforce is not the same place now and the demand on people’s time and how we work has changed quite dramatically. That mindset and culture of overwork needs to shift with it.”

“The demand on people’s time and how we work has changed quite dramatically. That mindset and culture of overwork needs to shift with it.”
Josh Hickford FCA, Taranaki Foundation

Keeping track of time

That attitude may be taking hold across the industry. Earlier this year, Grant Thornton announced it was trialling a nine-day fortnight, with chief executive officer Greg Keith FCA saying many people in professional services were reporting increased stress and health issues.

He described the system as broken, and said: “We will be bold in trying something different, as we want a better outcome for our people and our clients.”

The progress so far has been positive, says Priscilla Ly CA, senior manager in private business tax and advisory at Grant Thornton.

“There has been a shift in the mindset and culture of how we work and we are actively trying to find efficiencies, so we can achieve a nine-day fortnight,” she says. “Our team really values the work-life balance that we started to experience through the pandemic and we want to make sure we can continue and improve that for people.”

Ly points to some simple techniques to track workloads, such as weekly meetings to monitor workflow. It develops a pattern of behaviour that allows people to be transparent about how much time they are spending on a project.

“We have weekly workflow meetings, where we ensure team members have enough work on and if any of them have too much on, we work out how to disperse it more fairly. By having those conversations as soon as they join as a graduate or an associate, it creates that comfort level for them to be able to ask when they need help,” she explains.

Getting the job done

Work life balance

Many graduates join a professional services firm for the opportunities that can “turbo-charge a career”, says Bateup.

“A lot of graduates get excited by the type of work they can do when they join a professional services firm – they can see how it is going to benefit their long-term career. Providing them those opportunities without burning them out is what we look for,” he says.

“We don’t have a hard-and-fast number of what is unreasonable, but obviously when people start consistently working 50 hours a week, that is not sustainable.”

Ly agrees, and points to the type of work accounting firms rely on.

“Essentially, client deliverables have to be met and there will be times where if something is due or a client needs something urgently, then we roll up our sleeves and get it done. But we try not to be unreasonable. If one person says, ‘Look, it’s absolutely not possible’, then we find alternatives and other resources to help,” says Ly.

Rotating people between interesting and complex jobs that may require periods of overtime with more straightforward projects that take up less time is also a way to manage someone from being subject to an unreasonable load, says Bateup.

“We want everyone to feel like their time is highly valued. So, if you’re working late at night doing filing or photocopying, that’s going to feel far less valuable for you if it is because a partner under-budgeted for a piece of work.

“Whereas, if it’s work that’s interesting or meaningful, and which provides a learning experience for your career, people might see that as a good way to spend their time,” he says.

Balancing those periods of intense work with time off, flexible starting times and other initiatives are crucial to fostering a supportive and positive culture, says Hickford.

“Leaders should reward performance and effort. In our team we take some time off or leave early after a big project is finished.”

Overworked or inexperienced?

For Kayla Brew, an accountant at the start of her career at New Zealand firm Tandem Group, communication has been an important part of her experience since she began at the firm a few years ago.

“We are all very open about whether we’ve got too much on at the moment and when we can offload something to somebody else if their workload is lighter. We talk regularly among the team, but also with the partners and directors as well,” she says.

Determining how to best distribute the work in the first instance is crucial, Brew says.

“We have a look at who the work is suitable for. So perhaps when senior staff are doing basic GST work you can flow that onto somebody else.

“We also have a rule that you don’t spend too much time if you’re not making progress. You need to identify that you’ve done what you can, you cannot progress the job yourself and then that will be passed on to someone it’s more appropriate for. It’s really working out whether the work is appropriate for the level of experience,” she says.

Getting that wrong can also be the reason why someone is working long hours, says Hickford.

If someone is spending long hours on something, they need to look at whether they have the skill set to be able to do it. It will be pretty obvious when the cracks start appearing and that’s when you need to speak to someone or seek help,” he says.

Regular team communication helps identify whether someone is working longer hours than necessary and also gives everyone an opportunity to see how a project is progressing.

“There’s nowhere to hide in a team meeting. Sharing your workload can not only help identify if you’re overworked, it can prevent people from wrongly assuming they are the only ones under pressure and reveal if others are facing heavy workloads without realising it,” he says.

Workload management tips

To make sure your workload doesn’t tip over into excessive hours it’s essential to prioritise tasks, use your time wisely and identify wasted time that could be managed more efficiently.

Prioritise your tasks

  • Urgency and importance: identify tasks that are both urgent and important, and tackle them first
  • Deadline proximity: sort tasks based on their deadlines to avoid last-minute rushes
  • Impact and outcome: focus on the tasks that have the most significant impact on your goals and objectives.

Use your time wisely

  • Time blocking: allocate specific time blocks for different tasks or projects – for example, reading and answering emails for 10 minutes every hour, rather than opening them as they arrive – to stay focused
  • Short bursts: work in short, concentrated bursts (for instance, 25 minutes), followed by a short break, to maintain your concentration
  • Set realistic goals: break down larger tasks into smaller, achievable goals to maintain motivation.

Stop wasting time

  • Excessive meetings: streamline your meetings, ensuring they have clear agendas and involve only necessary participants
  • Procrastination: set yourself strict deadlines for tasks.

From CA Library

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This ebook and audiobook discusses how to navigate practical issues in your career, including pay, workload, promotions and company loyalty.

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