Special Report - Accountants on the edge

Shocking statistics reveal high levels of stress, depression and alcoholism in the accountancy profession.

Alice Nixon.

Long hours, constant deadlines, a frenetic working pace, no time for a personal life - these are the realities of the working life of accountants.

The relentless need to meet expanding performance targets and the burden of increasing regulation on the profession is leading to burn-out - on an unprecedented scale - among increasing numbers of accountants.

The statistics are graphic. More than a third of ICAEW members drink to excess and suicide rates are substantially higher than the national average.

This dark picture was presented to the council of the ICAEW by the Chartered Accountants' Benevolent Association (CABA). Taken collectively, it shows a profession failing to cope at a personal level with the immense toll of the work.

The statistics, mostly projections based on national averages, suggest a quarter of all ICAEW members (over 30,000) will have to take time off work owing to stress or stress-related issues.

A third of members (over 40,000) will drink to excess (over 21 alcohol units a week), and some 8,500 will drink so much that they will have medical and work problems.

Suicide rates among male accountants are also a worrying 10% above the national average. Some 115 male accountants committed suicide between 1993 and 2000, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Although the number of female suicides in the same time period is much lower at just 15, this is in fact, staggeringly, three times the national average.

In addition, recent research conducted for recruitment agency Macildowie Associates, found that 72% of the 120 accountants surveyed, all aged up to 35, felt their job was becoming more stressful, and over a quarter regretted their decision to enter the profession. Long hours and insecurity about their jobs seemed the major contributing factors to their high stress levels.

Professional pressures

Accountants are of course not the only profession to struggle with problems like alcoholism - the medical and legal professions particularly spring to mind in this regard.

However, if the ONS figures are to be believed, more working-age male accountants drink to excess than male doctors. Some 21% of medical practitioners drink to excess according to the statistics, compared with 38% of male financial managers - who incidentally are on a par with male judges and lawyers. (There are no statistics on female professionals).

Firms and companies do seem to be recognising and responding to the problem of stress by focusing on work-life balance issues and offering increased flexibility. And some, such as Ernst & Young, run mentoring schemes, to give employees someone to talk to other than their line managers.


Unlike the legal profession, however, accountants have no access to a specialised support service run by their professional body. CABA is busy setting about launching a new telephone helpline for accountants in need, called YouCount, which will be a close copy of the legal profession's own support line, Law Care. Initially it will help with problems such as stress, depression, addiction, bullying and related welfare difficulties.

CABA hopes to later expand it to include areas such as gambling and debt, as well as offering welfare advice and directing members to specialist sources of welfare support.

Law Care has been running for six years, during which time it has received 1,500 calls. This may not seem too many but the number of calls grows at a rate of 25%-30% each year. The division between calls on stress/depression and alcohol problems is 70% to 30%. And some 80% of those calling with an alcohol problem say it is due to stress at work. Younger callers, from pre-qualification to five-years post qualification, tend to ring regarding stress and depression, and older callers tend to ring with alcohol problems.

In women, these alcohol problems tend to evidence themselves in their mid-30s, and men in their mid-40s.

The causes of stress on lawyers will differ from those of accountants, but as professionals, there will inevitably be similar pressures.

Hilary Tilby, chief executive of Law Care and a former barrister and solicitor, says a major problem across the legal profession is bullying.

'Lawyers' people skills are not wonderful, and I suspect that's true of many professionals. Sometimes this bullying can be just down to insensitivity; other times it's an ego trip for the bully,' she says.

Out of control

'There also tends to be a sense of lack of control - because stress is not what you do but what others do to you. It's due to the fact that whatever you've planned for that day, whatever way you've structured your work, you simply cannot do it because of outside factors - such as others not doing their part of the work in time. Particularly younger people don't feel they've got any control over how their life is going.'

Law Care receives more calls from women than men, but this is because, argues Tilby, women are better at analysing themselves physically and emotionally and are more willing to come forward and ask for help. By the time men call the helpline they tend to be in a worse state than the female callers.

'Men still have this concept that they must be able to cope,' she says.

'Right across the board, professionals are always there to solve other people's problems. Other people don't expect them to have problems themselves and aren't interested. So after a few years, you don't expect yourself to have problems either. And then if you do and you can't solve them, you start thinking in very emotive terms of failure and inadequacy.'

There is also the constant difficulty of balancing work with personal relationships and family life. 'We're like tightrope walkers with a long pole, and on one end is work and on the other home and family,' says Tilby.

'As long as the two stay balanced you can stay on the tightrope, but if one or other goes of kilter, it tips you off.'

Sue Field, chairman of the ICAEW Support Members Group, which advises members on ethical issues and provides a certain amount of counselling, was the person who first raised the issue of the need for a support line for accountants with serious problems. As a sole practitioner herself she is only too aware of the pressures.

Constant expectations

'There are constant deadlines, constant expectations,' she says. 'And the consequences of us getting things wrong are a real worry. It could mean a huge insurance claim or the loss of livelihood.

'And it is really difficult to balance the pressures of work and family life. Stress can come from a number of sources and all the different causes can feed off each other.

'Your partner might become resentful if you come home late and tired after busy long days in the office and the first thing you do is pour yourself a drink, for example. Before you know it, not only have you got work problems but marriage problems as well - and potentially a drink problem too.'

There is of course no set list of pressures that induces stress. There are a huge number of triggers and combinations of triggers, and many different ways that different personalities will respond to the resulting stress.

What's clear is that accountants aren't immune to stress and stress-related illnesses, and the launch of CABA's new helpline can't come too soon.


Jim, 59, trained as a chartered accountant at a small Liverpool firm in the 1960s. He didn't really like the firm or the work he was given to do, and he remembers, as the first person not to have to pay a premium to train at the firm, feeling 'a bit of an outsider' and that he didn't fit in. 'And I think that's when I started to have a few drinks,' he says.

In the late 1970s/early 1980s, after a few more accountancy roles, Jim moved into IT, developing financial systems for accountants. There a heavy drinking culture began to take its toll.

'I got into drinking with the bosses. It was a bit of a drinking club, and because I was keen to impress the bosses, I didn't bother going home to my wife and family. I would travel around Europe a lot and was able to drink on expense accounts, and we would hold meetings with financial controllers in pubs.

'Because I had problems at home, caused by my staying out late, I ended up staying out even later. I could not get a sensible link between my business life and my personal life.

'But my drinking didn't really get out of hand until I began contracting.

My marriage ended in divorce in 1983 - it was just an untenable situation - and I was torn apart. Then in 1985 I lost three contracts very quickly one after the other, all of which were due to drinking-related problems.

It was then I sought help and was admitted to a rehabilitation unit. I went to AA but decided it wasn't for me - I didn't really believe I had the same problem as the other AA members.

'I drank on and off for another seven years. But in 1992 I started to drink again properly. On New Year's Eve I had the most dreadful hallucinations - they scared me to death and I stopped drinking. Unfortunately I stopped without any kind of help.

'Later I had a couple of contracts I hated, and unbeknownst to me my character went back to how it was when I was drinking and I became very unreasonable. My second wife left me. Then I went to see my GP to get help for depression, and it was at that point, after nine years without a drink, that I finally decided to go to AA. Before then I don't think I'd ever really got out of the alcohol frame of mind. AA has been fantastic and I wish to goodness I'd gone there before.'

Alcoholics Anonymous: www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk


According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), stress is likely to become the most dangerous risk to business in the early part of the 21st century.

The CIPD says:

•   Stress, depression and anxiety are the second most commonly reported illnesses (after musculoskeletal disorders) reported in the UK generally, causing workers to take 13.4m days off work in 2001/02.

•   Depression costs British business an estimated £9bn a year.

•   Where employees are stressed because they have no say on how work is done, or need to do work that involves a fast pace and need to resolve conflicting priorities, or have a lack of recognition, understanding and support from their managers, there is a higher risk of the employee suffering a psychiatric disorder.

•   A lack of attention to employee well-being has potential legal and cost implications, and compensation payments for stress-related injuries are rising.

The Heath and Safety Executive is developing stress management standards which will encourage organisations to identify and tackle stress at work.

The standards, to be launched later this year, will be voluntary but, according to the CIPD, they are likely to be used as evidence against employers that continue to ignore their responsibilities in managing stress under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.


Alcoholics Anonymous: www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk Samaritans: 08457 909090

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development: www.cipd.co.uk

Health and Safety Executive: www.hse.gov.uk

International Stress Management Association: www.isma.org.uk.


CABA is hoping to launch the new helpline in late spring 2005.

In the meantime, you can contact the association on 01327 314830, or email


You can also access CABA's website at: www.caba.org.uk, where you can make a donation online. CABA exists to assist those in need who are or have been members of either the ICAEW or the former Society of Incorporated Accountants and their wives, widows, children or dependants.


•   The May 2004 issue carried an article on work-life balance, 'Burning the midnight oil', p48, and an article on stress audits, 'Pressure point', p50

•   The August 2004 issue carried an article on PricewaterhouseCoopers' partner survival course, which deals with work-life issues, p34


The ICAEW is keen to encourage flexible working practices which promote a healthy work-life balance - and which are beneficial for business too.

Long working hours tend to be accepted as part and parcel of being an accountant. But the detrimental effect these long hours can have on people's personal lives, and ultimately on business, are increasingly being recognised, as are the advantages of a work-life balance. Something of a cultural shift in the accountancy profession appears to be afoot.

The ICAEW recently made efforts to push the shift forward, actively encouraging firms and companies to introduce flexible working practices by publishing a 67-page-long guide on the subject. Publication of the guide in September 2004 follows a large two-year research project, examining flexible working patterns throughout the profession and surveying institute members.

'Work-personal integration is the most serious and potentially dangerous workplace issue to hit the profession in recent years,' said Kathryn Britten, former chairman of the ICAEW's Workplace initiative.

'The research has shown us that there is a real business case for organisations to embrace flexibility. This is not only to ensure that they attract and retain the best people but, in doing so, they enhance the quality of client services and hence profitability.'

The research found the nature of accountancy work and the ways in which it is organised to be partly to blame for the long hours culture. However, another big problem is the common belief that constant long hours are necessary in order to demonstrate commitment.

Misleading assumptions

'The long hours culture is part of take-for-granted shared knowledge in accountancy,' states the guide. 'It is sustained by the assumption that this is just an inevitable part of the job, assumptions about the nature of service to clients, and by high self-expectations which are tied up with professional identity.

'If these assumptions are made explicit they can be discussed and challenged, but often they remain implicit. The long hours culture and undervaluing of those who are not at their desks for long hours are major barriers to the success of flexible working practices.'

However, while these assumptions tend to remain ingrained within organisations, more and more individuals are determined to have a life beyond work, and believe that the current culture often rewards inefficiency.

As one partner of a medium-sized firm points out: 'Just because (people) work long hours and work hard doesn't mean to say that they are working effectively.

'If I saw people working long hours, I would question whether they were actually doing their job during the day effectively. I am more impressed by people who can manage their time properly and deliver the job that they are charged with.'

The institute's guide identifies problematic assumptions and practices - such as the idea that the number of hours worked represents effort and commitment, which is reinforced by the use of time sheets and the policy of always doing whatever it takes to please the client - and suggests possible actions to encourage more flexibility.

Alice Nixon

The ICAEW's guide, The Flexible and Profitable Workplace, is published by the institute's Centre for Business Performance. To obtain a copy or for more information, see www.icaew.co.uk/cbp.

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