Counting the cost of stress in accountancy firms

Most people wouldn’t consider accountancy to be a high risk job. After all, accountants don’t face the same dangers as a firefighter running into a burning building.

But risk in the workplace comes in all shapes and sizes – it’s not always about physical hazards.

Accountants have to deal with an intense and heavy workload and the pressure of deadlines, especially towards the year end. All this against a backdrop of trying to increase billable hours.

This can result in severe stress, which is a common and growing problem in accountancy firms. Stress threatens the mental health of the employee, meaning they cannot function at their best. This harms the performance of the firm through lost billable hours, more pressure on management to deal with the HR challenge, higher staff turnover and damage to the firm’s reputation.

How big is the problem?

According to research by CABA:

  • 32% of accountants feel stressed
  • 17% have been forced to take time off to due to stress
  • 42% have considered resigning
  • 40% had looked for a job elsewhere
  • 14% had actually handed in their notice due to stress.

Some may feel they aren’t being supported by their management, or feel the pressure of unrealistic expectations from their managers and peers, while others find it particularly difficult to strike a good work-life balance.

The cost of stress

Stress is, in fact, a huge problem for all sectors of British business. The latest figures available show that almost 12 million working days were lost in 2015/16 due to absences as a result of stress, accounting for 37% of all work-related cases of ill health.

If management at your firm does not take steps to deal with stress, there are potentially some serious repercussions for your business and your employees:

  • Increased costs – Stress can lead to staff absences and you having to find suitable cover to get the work done, a reduction in billable hours or losing clients entirely.
  • Low staff morale – This usually has a damaging knock-on effect to the quality of their work, performance and productivity.
  • High employee turnover rate – Staff will feel ‘enough is enough’ and leave the firm (or even the profession). This is especially the case if they feel that their manager is not listening to their concerns or taking any action to remediate the situation.
  • Grievances – If the employee’s stress is as a result of bullying and harassment, you will need to make sure that you deal with grievances quickly and promptly to ensure that disputes don’t escalate and workplace relationships remain strong.
  • Damage to your firm’s reputation – Anyone can write negative comments on websites and social media. Potential candidates may be put off joining your firm if they read that stress is prevalent and it is not being taken seriously by managers.

All of these factors can negatively impact an employee’s health, morale, productivity, performance, attendance and employment relationships. And, of course, it impacts on your clients and your business performance, so it’s time to take action.

What is stress?

The definition provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.

There is a difference between pressure and stress. There is some sort of pressure in all jobs, particularly in a profession like accountancy,  which can make people feel challenged and motivated, having a positive effect on their performance.

Stress, on the other hand, can have a detrimental effect on someone’s mental and physical health and well-being.

What causes stress?

According to the HSE, and backed up by Ellis Whittam’s own experience of working with the sector, there are six main causes of stress in the workplace.

  • Demands: Employees may not be able to cope with the demands of their job and feel overwhelmed with their workload, work pattern or work environment.
  • Control: An employee may get stressed if they feel a lack of control about the way they do their work. This can lead to them underperforming and feeling isolated.
  • Support: They can also feel stressed that they are not supported in the workplace by their managers or colleagues.
  • Relationships: The nature of relationships within the workplace can affect an employee’s wellbeing. If relationships in the workplace are causing stress, this can lead to employee grievances being raised, allegations of bullying and/or harassment and bad team dynamics.
  • Role: People get stressed when they don’t understand their role and what is expected of them, or if they have conflicting job demands.
  • Change: Change can be very unsettling for some employees, even if they don’t outwardly show it. What will be the effect on them? Will they need to move offices? Will this result in job losses?

Of course, it is not just work that causes stress. Personal issues such as relationships, family, bereavement, money and illness can all factor in and impact on the employee’s health.

How do I spot signs of stress at my accountancy firm?

Stress can manifest itself in a number of ways.

You may notice changes in an employee’s behaviour, habits or routines. For example, you may notice them stepping out to smoke more, taking more time off, changes to their appetite, or that they are struggling to remember things or making uncharacteristic mistakes.

Alternatively, you may notice emotional changes, for instance, they may seem more withdrawn or they are more sensitive or snappy when responding to people or certain situations.

What obligations does the law impose on employers?

Employers have a legal duty to ensure that workplaces are safe and healthy. The law also requires employers to carry out a risk assessment of work-related stress and take measures to control and reduce these risks.

What can you do?

Here are some top tips:

  • Foster an open door policy at the firm – It’s beneficial to allow people to come forward and raise their concerns with their managers. Communication is often at the heart of the problem, so keep channels open.
  • Identify the risks at your workplace – Do work practices allow employees to take proper breaks? Can they switch off once they have left the office? Do employees feel supported by their managers? Are allegations of bullying taken seriously?
  • Take action – Once you know the causes, you can take appropriate action. For example, if you are making significant changes to the workplace, informing and consulting with the employee about the proposed changes and giving them timescales can help the employee feel less stressed.
  • Train your managers – They must be able to identify employees who are showing signs of stress and know what they can do to ameliorate the situation.
  • Make sure you have robust HR policies in place – this includes bullying, harassment and grievances.

Final word

We all react to pressures and demands of the workplace in different ways. What matters for management at accountancy firms is firstly recognising that stress is a real issue even if it’s not immediately evident, and that it’s management’s responsibility to react to it.

Failure to do so not only impacts on the individual but ultimately, if mismanaged, could lead to an Employment Tribunal claim and heavy costs.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

Whether you’re facing an immediate challenge or just want the reassurance of an expert second opinion, we’re here to offer clear, commercial advice so that you can focus on what you do best.

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