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Stress--why, where, who, and what to do!

Stress And Stress Management
In Public Accounting

By Joseph C. Sanders, Daniel L. Fulks, and James K. Knoblett

Stress, with all its deleterious effects may be just part of professional life. The authors made a study of this disruptive influence on the work and lives of CPAs and offer the results, as well as possible remedies. The information obtained is also useful to CPAs no longer in public practice and others who face pressures in the work place.

Most CPAs agree that public accounting is a high-stress profession. Studies conducted in 1958 revealed that the cholesterol level of accountants increased significantly during busy season and decreased afterwards. Stress may be even greater for CPAs in today's economic climate. Clients are pressuring firms to reduce fees and hours, and increased competition among firms has created even more tension. At the same time, the expenses of running a firm are increasing. The profession faces many other difficult problems and challenges as well--an increasing liability risk, standards overload, a lack of growth in the demand for services, and an explosion in technological advances to keep pace with. All of these factors make it a tough time to be a CPA, and a stressful time as well.

Excessive stress can have a negative effect on an individual's performance and personal health. It can also produce important negative organizational effects, such as absenteeism, poor productivity, high turnover, and job dissatisfaction. In order for firm managers to mitigate the impact of excessive stress, they need to identify its primary sources at the job. Firms and individual CPAs should benefit by knowing who is under the most stress. How does stress differ among CPAs based on position level, firm type, and area of specialization?

Behavior patterns, and lifestyles can also have a significant effect on stress. For example, healthy coping behaviors and exercise are often suggested as ways to combat the negative effects of stress, while Type A personality is often associated with increased levels of stress.

The Study

To find answers to the question of the role stress plays in public accounting, a mail survey of members of the AICPA currently working in public accounting was undertaken. One thousand individuals were randomly selected from the Institute's membership directory for inclusion in the survey. Replies were received from 570 accountants. The questionnaire contained scales measuring stressors, individual factors, and consequences of stress.

Sixty-nine percent of the respondents were male and 31% female. Ten percent of the respondents were staff accountants, 30% seniors, 35% managers, and 25% were partners. The most common area of specialization was auditing, 37%, followed by tax, 30%; small business clients, 16%; management advisory services, 4%; and the remaining 14% in multiple areas. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents were employed by local CPA firms, while 12% worked for regional firms, and 30% worked for national firms. The average number of hours worked per week during busy season was 59, while the average number of hours worked outside of busy season was 43.

The study examined the following eight work-related sources of stress:
* Role Ambiguity. Stress created because an individual does not clearly understand what is expected on the job. * Role Conflict. Stress created because an individual is presented with conflicting demands or an unclear chain of command.

* Overload--Quantitative. Stress created by the perception of too great a volume of work to accomplish in the allocated time.

* Overload--Qualitative. Stress created by job requirements which exceed the individual's ability or skill level.

* Career Progress. Stress created
by not having enough perceived opportunities to advance or learn new skills and techniques.

* Responsibility for People. Feeling stress because of personal feelings about being responsible for other employees.

* Time Pressures. Stress caused by the perception of unreasonable deadlines and time demands.

* Job Scope. Stress caused by the general range and depth of the job.

Prior research has found that excess stress is related to several negative personal and organizational consequences. Five of these were chosen as outcome variables and are included in the study: job-tension level, job satisfaction, absenteeism, turnover intention (plans to leave the firm in the relatively near future), and psychosomatic distress (physical problems and illnesses which are often associated with mental stress).

The Results

Results are summarized by position level, firm type, and area of specialization.

Position Level. Partners reported lower levels of all the stressors except quantitative overload, responsibility for people, and time pressure. Partners also reported the highest level of stress, based on responsibility for people and job satisfaction. They also reported the lowest level of psychosomatic distress and turnover intention.

The results of this study appear to validate the notion that it is not the bosses but the bossed who suffer most from stress. In other words, it was the conventional wisdom that partners do not get ulcers, they give them. Partners, however, reported just as much stress from time pressure and quantitative work overload as CPAs in the other three position levels. Perhaps individuals who can handle the demands of the profession and are less adversely affected by stress are the types of individuals who achieve the partnership level.

Individual perception of stressors is also important. Partners may be more likely to perceive stressors as challenges in a positive manner, while nonpartners may tend to perceive similar stressors in a negative manner, as threats.

Staff accountants reported either the highest or second highest level of several of the work-related stressors: role ambiguity, role conflict, qualitative overload, career progress, and job scope. Staff accountants also reported the highest level of psychosomatic distress. Their turnover intention was comparable to seniors and managers and significantly higher than partners.

Seniors and managers reported similar levels of stressors and outcomes. The only significant differences between seniors and managers involved two stressors, qualitative overload and responsibility for people. Seniors reported a higher level of qualitative overload and managers reported a higher level of responsibility for people.

Based on these results, firms attempting to lower job-related stress, should focus their efforts first on staff, seniors, and managers. These groups reported higher levels of most of the stressors, lower job satisfaction, and higher turnover intention than that of partners. More specifically, efforts should be directed at reducing the identified stressors at these levels, providing employees with training for recognizing stressors and providing tools for coping with stress.

Firm Type. Three types of firms were compared: national, regional and local. Significant differences were found among all eight of the work-related stressors and three of the five outcome variables. Coping, exercise, and type A scores were comparable for all three types of firms.

Individuals working for national firms reported greater stress from all of the work stressors except career progress when compared to local firm respondents. They also reported a higher level of job-related tension and turnover intention, and lower job satisfaction than local firm respondents. Compared to regional firm respondents, national respondents reported greater amounts of stress from quantitative overload and time pressure, and higher turnover intention.

One possible explanation of why national firms are more stressful is that they tend to hire students who are more competitive by nature. There is intense pressure among staff members to climb the ladder to partnership as fast as possible. Staff members realize that if they are not moving up, they will probably soon be moving out. Travel requirements are often greater for national firm employees, which may create additional stress.

At the other extreme, respondents from local firms reported the least amount of stress from all of the work stressors measured. They also reported the lowest level of job-related tension and the highest level of job satisfaction. These results suggest that local firms have a less stressful working environment than national firms and a slightly less stressful work environment than regional firms.

Responses from regional firm respondents tended to fall between those from national and local firms with a few exceptions. Regional firm respondents reported significantly less quantitative overload and time pressure compared to national respondents. They reported significantly more stress from role conflict and job scope compared to local firm respondents. Regional firm respondents reported the greatest amount of stress from career progress of all three groups. Versus the national firm respondents, lower job-related tension and turnover intention were reported by the regionals. These results indicate that the stressfulness of the work environment of regional firms falls between that of national and local firms.

Although the results were not statistically significant, national respondents reported the highest average Type A score (national 107.3 vs. regional 104.4 and local 104.1). A score of 100 is the minimum score indicating a Type A personality. Thus, scores in excess of 100 indicate stronger Type A tendencies. Sixty-four percent of all respondents scored in excess of 100. Two possible explanations for the higher Type A scores for national firms respondents are that either 1) national firms hire more Type A individuals or, 2) working in a national firm causes people to either develop more of a Type A personality or depart the firm. Indeed, the combination of these two notions suggests that, given their hiring and promotion policies, it is more likely that national firms hire more Type A personality types and the non-Type A persons depart the firm earlier.

Students considering entering public accounting might want to consider these results when trying to select the type of firm with which to seek employment. They should assess their personality and goals to help decide which type of firm would best fit their needs.

Area of Specialization. CPA's working in three areas of specialization--auditing, tax, and small business clients--were compared. The largest number of significant differences was again found among the work stressors. No significant differences were found among the three individual factors--coping behavior, exercise, and personality type--and the only outcome variable which differed was turnover intention. The manner in which the respondents cope with stress, the extent to which they engage in exercise activities, and the extent to which they are represented by Type A personalities are essentially identical across the audit, tax, and small business areas of specialization. However, the study indicates that professionals working in the small business area are more inclined to have plans for departing the firm in the relatively near future.

CPAs working in auditing reported the highest level of stress from six of the eight listed work stressors. Stress from role conflict, quantitative overload, time pressure, and job scope was greater for auditors than both tax and small business respondents. Stress from qualitative overload and responsibility for people was significantly greater than the levels reported by small business respondents.

Auditors also reported a higher level of turnover intention than in tax and small business. These results suggest that working in the audit department of
a public accounting firm is more stressful than working in the tax or small business department.

The higher stress of auditing may be due to the overall structure in which most auditing is conducted--tight schedules for completion, budgetary and time constraints, clients that don't like audit findings and concentration of work in a short "busy season."

Individual Factors

The correlations between three individual factors(coping behavior, exercise, and personality type) and three of the outcome variables--job tension level, job satisfaction, and psychosomatic distress) had the expected results.

Coping. The level of stress a person experiences depends, to a large extent on how, and how well, the individual copes with stress. The scale used to measure coping is intended to measure adaptive and maladaptive coping techniques. Adaptive coping techniques refer to behaviors that can be used to manage demands and reduce stress while simultaneously promoting personal health. Maladaptive coping techniques also can help manage demands and reduce stress but these type of behaviors simultaneously create other demands and prolonged stress.

Exhibit 1 shows the percentage of CPAs practicing these various coping techniques. It is interesting to note that only 6.7% of the respondents smoke as much as 10 cigarettes per day. Two maladaptive coping techniques which were more prevalent were 1) tending to keep it inside when under high levels of stress and 2) the tendency to become angry or irritable under high levels of stress.

A fairly large percentage of respondents practiced several of the adaptive coping techniques such as actively pursuing a hobby, practicing time management techniques, and eating balanced meals. Practically all the respondents reported having a supportive family or group of friends close by, while very few CPAs tended to seek professional help to deal with high levels of stress.

Exercise. Exercise is often recommended as a stress reducing technique. The survey asked CPAs to indicate the average number of hours spent in various types of physical activity. Exhibit 2 shows the number of CPAs participating in each form of activity and the average number of hours per week. Not surprisingly, golfing was the most popular form of exercise, followed by weightlifting, bicycling, and running. Even though exercise is highly recommended to reduce stress, the survey results showed weak relationships to job-related tension and psychosomatic distress. One mitigating factor may be that since golf is the most frequently reported form of exercise and is highly competitive in nature, it may, in fact, add to stress. Physicians frequently ask stress patients if they play golf. If the answer is in the affirmative, they are advised to quit. If the answer is negative, they are advised to take up the game.

Personality Type. Public accounting seems to attract a large number of individuals with Type A personality, which has been linked with higher levels of job-related tension and job dissatisfaction. This study confirms again that a large percentage of CPAs are Type A. Sixty-one percent of the respondents reported scores which would be classified as Type A. Type A personality is positively related to job tension and psychosomatic distress. The low correlation between Type A and job satisfaction, however, suggests that there is little difference between the job satisfaction of Type A and Type B individuals.

Conclusions and Implications

Several broad conclusions can be drawn from this research. Within the public accounting profession, the working environment of national firms is more stressful than that of regional and local firms, and auditing is the most stressful area of specialization. With respect to position level, relatively minor differences were found among staff, seniors, and managers, while partners were the least stressed group. They reported the lowest level of several of the work-related stressors and psychosomatic distress. Partners also reported the highest level of job satisfaction and the lowest level of turnover intention. The latter, of course, is largely explained by prestige and economic benefits of achieving that position.

Healthy coping behaviors are associated with lower job-related tension and psychosomatic distress among CPAs, while Type A personality is associated with higher job-related tension and psychosomatic distress. Surprisingly, exercise is only weakly related to lower levels of job-related tension and psychosomatic distress.

Our results suggest that it would be prudent for firm managers to focus their stress-reduction strategy upon the senior staff level. The reduced stress might then be expected to trickle up to the manager and partner levels and especially to trickle down to the staff level--those persons being supervised by seniors.

Joseph C. Sanders is an assistant professor at Indiana State University. Daniel L. Fulks is associate professor of accounting at the University of Kentucky, and James K. Knoblett is professor of accounting at the University of Kentucky.



Maladaptive Yes No

1. Smokes one half or more packs of

cigarettes in an average day 6.7% 93.3%

2. During an average week consume any form

of medication or chemical substance to

help you cope 20.4 79.6

3. Tend to eat more to help cope with

high levels of stress 37.4 62.6

4. Tend to "keep it inside" when you are

under high levels of stress 71.0 29.0

5. Take medication to help you sleep 5.4 94.6

6. Smoke more under high levels of pressure 9.0 91.0

7. Tend to become generally angry or

irritable under high levels of stress 46.5 53.5

8. Tend to take frustration out on others

when you are under high levels of stress 46.5 53.5

9. Drink caffeinated beverages to get a

lift during an average day 62.6 37.4

10. Drink caffeinated beverages to help

cope with stress 18.6 81.4


1. Actively pursue a hobby for recreation

or relaxation 67.7 32.3

2. Rely on religious faith to help you

cope 48.2 51.8

3. Practice time management techniques 78.4 21.6

4. Eat at least two wholesome balanced

meals a day 65.4 34.6

5. Seek "professional" help when you are

under high levels of stress 3.0 97.0

6. Have supportive family or group of

friends close by 93.5 6.5

7. Exercise at least three times a week

for 20 minutes or longer each time 43.2 56.8

8. Practice some form of deep relaxation

at least three times a week. 3.0 97.0

9. Have some place in your home you use

to relax or be by yourself 53.8 46.2

10. Have family or friends with whom you

often share you feelings or problems 79.8 20.2




Average Time

Type of Exercise Number Per Week

1. Golfing (without a cart) 129 3.8 hours

2. Weightlifting 108 2.7

3. Bicycling 104 2.1

4. Running 100 2.2

5. Aerobics 87 2.5

6. Softball 73 2.1

7. Tennis 55 2.6

8. Swimming 41 1.7

9. Racquetball/squash 22 1.7



(Based on 570 responses)


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