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NextGen Magazine

 
 

The Work-Life Balance Sheet: How the Accounting Profession Is Adding Value

By:
Zach Simeone
Published Date:
Nov 5, 2019

GettyImages-913812224 Woman Meditating Meditation Balance Office

As people in various industries around the world strive for greater work-life integration, employers are increasingly recognizing that striking the right balance is crucial for the physical and mental health of individual workers, in addition to their productivity and their quality of life.

Study after study has shown that overwork—and resulting dangerous habits, like sleep deprivation—have ripple effects that reach far beyond the office, potentially affecting an employee’s cognitive abilities, immune system, respiratory system, risk of heart disease, sex drive and relationships. What’s more, being overworked can affect one’s ability to even notice these effects. Sleep deprivation, for example, has been scientifically compared to being drunk at work. Debates are ongoing about whether the trend toward overwork is more the product of individual choice or cultural pressures.

As research mounts, the accounting profession is taking steps to encourage a healthy workforce. And the next generation of young professionals is thinking about this early on—even as they begin searching for their first jobs. Job seekers often lean toward companies that offer flexible work schedules and the opportunity to work from home, especially those who plan to start families.

“Think about if the life you’re living now is worth the price you’re paying to live it, and what your true definition of success is,” said Cecilia Tse, a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, during a panel discussion on work-life balance at the NYSSCPA’s Women’s Leadership Forum this past January. PwC, a Big Four firm, is just one of the companies that have incorporated mindfulness and meditation into their infrastructure. (You can watch the full panel discussion here.)

What is clear is that this conversation has been happening at all levels of the profession for years now, and it seems to be adapting as the dialogue progresses. NextGen spoke with leadership and staff members at various levels in order to get a picture of how accounting firms are responding to evidence that the global workforce could be far healthier than it is. Initiatives to improve health include group meditation; an emphasis on teamwork, both at the office and in extracurricular sports; trips to concerts and the theater; and flexible work schedules.

Health matters

“We’re talking about work-life integration, but we treat the ‘life’ part of things like life is a gift for getting your work done correctly,” said Rumbi Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, a sole practitioner who worked at Deloitte before starting her own company, Rock Forensics, LLC, in Queens, N.Y. “And we’re doing this despite some of the horror stories we’ve heard about what happens when we’re overworking ourselves.”

The state of health within the workforce made headlines this year when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it had added a detailed “burn-out” classification to its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The syndrome is now categorized as an “occupational phenomenon.”

Around the world, both detachment and obsession plague the workforce, and the impact on health is indeed multifaceted. Yet this is not a new area of study.

In 2009, the American Journal of Epidemiology published its widely cited “Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function: The Whitehall II Study.” It sampled 2,214 participants—1,694 men and 520 women—working in 20 London-based civil service departments, their ages ranging from 35 to 55. The study associates long hours (more than 55 hours a week) with “cardiovascular disease and immunologic reactions,” along with diabetes and depression.

The study also reports that “deterioration in cognitive performance, including impaired grammatical reasoning and alertness, has been found in post versus pretest conditions among employees working 9- to 12-hour shifts compared with a traditional 8-hour shift.” And, even when accounting for potential compounding factors like education, occupation, smoking and pre-existing diseases, “[w]orking more than 55 hours per week was associated with lower scores on two of the five tests of cognitive function,” the study found. “Furthermore, long working hours predicted decline in performance on the reasoning test over a five-year follow-up period.”

According to Johns Hopkins sleep researcher Patrick H. Finan, Ph.D., those experiencing sleep deprivation are 33 percent more likely to develop dementia, and 48 percent more likely to develop heart disease—the leading cause of death worldwide in the last 15 years, according to the WHO. And, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication.” Never mind that employees’ poor health can affect their work, hurt the company’s bottom line, and potentially drive up health insurance costs.

“It just makes sense—sick people don’t perform well,” said Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, who recalls social situations, both work-related and in her personal life, where people would tout their lack of sleep and nonstop work schedules as a “badge of honor.” She added, “It’s a very pervasive culture. It’s so New York.”

Firms focus on well-being

With unparalleled resources at their disposal, the Big Four firms—KPMG, EY, PwC and Deloitte—have responded to the mounting research with dramatic changes in recent years.

These include offering flexible work schedules, nourishing employees’ physical and mental health through incentivised exercise programs and group meditation at the office, and offering organizationwide support systems in the form of assigned teams and psychological counseling services.

 “Our profession involves a lot of hard work,” said Harry Argires, KPMG’s national managing partner of audit operations, in a written statement. “Our early career rewards program provides an annual ‘perks’ reimbursement to help pay for a variety of personal expenses—from student loan payments [and] electronics to food delivery and gym memberships.”

He added that the firm offers “help finding emergency backup child and adult [and] elder care, paid volunteer time, and an online database for assistance finding a nanny, housekeeper, or caregiver” for working parents who need additional support. 

Herb Engert, managing partner of EY’s New York City office, promotes the company’s “Better You” program, which offers a companywide, holistic approach to wellness for employees. This ranges from reimbursing employees for their gym memberships, to offering smartphone apps like Sleepio, which offers users an individualized “sleep improvement program” by monitoring and tracking their sleep patterns after they’ve taken a preliminary online sleep quiz.

“With stress and anxiety, sleep challenge is clearly one of the outcomes,” said Engert. “We’ve really taken this to heart.” And those looking for a real person to talk to for emotional and psychological support can reach out to the company’s EY Assist program, which connects employees with dedicated counselors. Private counseling services have also spread through the profession outside EY.

But Engert also looks to the arts and entertainment as a form of medicine for staff, and recently organized “an arts club and community” that began meeting this summer. Engert described the group’s recent trip to see Ain’t Too Proud on Broadway.

“We had arranged for a private meeting with the cast afterward, to do a group discussion with the cast about the show,” said Engert. “I think it’s not only important for people to experience the arts, but it’s important for them to be able to collaborate and discuss it in a small-group format. And we’re going to continue both on the theatrical side and the fine arts side.”

Similar to EY’s program, PwC’s “Be well, work well” initiative is a means of creating “sustainable work habits and life habits,” said Anne Donovan, PwC’s people experience leader. PwC employs a meditation and sleep app called Calm—and it’s not just for staff members to use privately.

“I was in an all-day meeting yesterday with my team, and the afternoon was getting long, and I said, ‘Time out,’” Donovan related. “It was raining outside, it was kind of cozy in the conference room, and we did a nice, 10-minute meditation. And I’m telling you, it changed the whole meeting. It re-energized the whole thing.”

The Calm app was one of several ideas that have been introduced to the company through its biannual “town halls,” Donovan said. “At this last one, which was in May, we had the Calm CEO join us, and talk to us about the benefits of meditation, and he actually led a firmwide, two-minute meditation.”

Deloitte has its own analogous program—“Empowered Well-being”—which includes a tool called Vitals.

“Vitals is an interactive, user-friendly dashboard that provides a more complete picture of hours worked and traveled, and PTO usage, by pulling data from existing systems,” said Jen Fisher, the firm’s U.S. chief well-being officer. “With these insights, coaches and coachees can discuss energy levels and develop solutions together to address personal and professional well-being before burnout occurs.” The dashboard also provides training in a number of areas, including meditation.

But the emphasis on mindfulness, community and team building is not limited to the Big Four, as firms of all sizes are taking these ideas increasingly seriously, and offering many of these same perks to their employees. Katelyn Kogan, a senior manager at Mazars USA LLP, a midsized firm, said that the organization offers perks to help employees working in tax get through their busy season.

“They do pilates classes, there are meditation sessions, they bring in massage [therapists] sometimes, and [there are] a bunch of happy hours for people to get a break,” Kogan said. “Outside of busy season, we have volunteer days, which people really like. We have quarterly office outings, and a bunch of other fun events interspersed throughout the year.”

Moreover, the importance of teamwork is apparent internally at firms and has contributed to the prevalence of flexible work schedules—a hallmark of work-life integration and, perhaps, one of the most transformative shifts in modern workplace culture.

The power of flexibility

“We work, very much so, in a teaming environment in the Big Four—especially at EY—and what I’ve learned throughout the years is that the teams that are figuring out how to work flexibly are the highest performing teams,” said Greg Rose, a senior manager in EY’s tax group. “And it all boils down to having the right leaders talking about flexibility and teaming ... to have this culture of anybody, from staff to partner, being able to work how they want work, so everybody can work toward their mutual goal.”

For Laura Collins, a senior manager in audit at KPMG, work-life balance became that much more important when she had children.

“I have two little girls; they’re 2 and almost 4,” Collins said. “So, for me, feeling like I have a good balance is putting them to bed at night; being able to be at soccer, gymnastics and preschool graduation; and not feeling a constant pull to be somewhere else. It means being viewed as a high performer at work, and being able to spend appropriate time with my clients and my staff.”

Collins spoke highly of the firm’s Team of Choice program, wherein teams collaborate on a “blueprint of what work-life balance means for them,” and build flexible but coordinated work schedules around that, she said. “My team, in particular, has a shared calendar, so we see that, ‘Wednesday night, you’ve got basketball league; or daycare pickups; or weddings.’ So, we can see what’s important to everybody, and build our plan around that.”

Kogan had her first child earlier this year and echoed Collins’ sentiment on the value of flextime. Her firm has also established Women@Mazars in an effort to spread the word that the field of public accounting is full of flexible work opportunities for women, even if they plan to have children.

But Kogan asserted that, while working professionals should always be focused on developing healthy and balanced work habits, they should also be focused on building reputations as hard workers early in their careers, “So you can have room to step back and have that flexibility later as the needs arise, whether that be to go back  to school later on, or start  a family, or address health  concerns—whatever you might need in the future,”  she said. “You may not need that flexibility early on. It  may not be in your interest  to work from home two days  a week in your first job. But  it is important to go to a  company where you know that those are options when you need them.”

 

Sidebar: Finding balance outside of work

Amanda Hines, a tax manager at PwC, said that while she initially struggled tremendously to find balance in her career, she eventually found meaning in mentorship.

“I always work out before work, so the actual physical part of wellness, I think I’ve been implementing since I started,” Hines said. “Mental and spiritual wellness was probably missing. … As much as I love tax, I don’t think that I was feeling superfulfilled in terms of feeling like I was making a huge difference in the community, and in the world.”

So she sought balance outside of work, which began with getting in touch with her roots.

“I work with girls from my hometown all year long,” coaching volleyball and advising them on their futures post-high school, Hines said. “In the fall, I help coach the high school team, and in the winter and spring, I coach the middle school team. So, in order to make the practices and games, this requires me to leave [work] early sometimes, and maybe make up the work on the back end, or work a few hours on the weekend in order to get my client work done.”

In the past five years, the girls she’s coached in middle school have moved on to high school, where she has continued building those relationships.

“And you kind of become more than just a coach to them—more of a mentor; and every year, I help with college essays; and every year, in college, the girls send me their résumés to look at; and people have shadowed me here,” she said. “I think that was the one thing I was missing ... and probably has helped with my mental wellness. Feeling like I’m helping people. Like I’m giving back.”