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Tax Talent & Culture

5 ways to embed well-being into accounting firms’ business strategy

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

It’s time for a new approach to employee well-being within the tax & accounting industry, one that would make well-being part of all industry employers’ business strategy

The ongoing labor shortage, too few new entrants into the industry, the norm of 50-plus-hour work weeks are long-known realities of the tax & accounting industry, but up to this point these challenges have not forced the industry to overhaul its approach to employee well-being. Now, however, you have to add in the long-term burnout from sustained pandemic stress over the last two years and evolving priorities on a healthy integration between work and life by early career professionals.

The resulting mix of realities may be the tipping point to finally push accounting employers to harmonize well-being into the business strategy and into the DNA of the organization. Here are five ways that tax & accounting employers could get their employees on the path to better well-being.

1. Help employees manage workloads and establish boundaries

Connecting regularly with employees about their workload and their stress level, along with check-ins on career development and learning have become leadership and manager best practices during the pandemic. Indeed, work/life integration expectations are changing — a majority of workers over 45 years of age believe establishing and enforcing those work boundaries to be their personal responsibility, while the majority of those workers under 45 believe it is a shared responsibility between employee and employer.

Similarly, given the longevity of the pandemic, it is now an expectation among employees and organization leadership alike that the organization will evolve its culture away from a physical space to a collective work experience that is conducted both virtually and in-person. It is also becoming more of an industry standard for organizations to seek to execute a culture of care and well-being for their employees.

2. Take care of managers

Managers who are cared for are more likely to extend that attitude to their teams. Managers who are burned out and ready to quit, similarly convey that negativity. Expectations on managers in general are higher than ever, as employees expect them to provide support and assist with the balance of their own workloads. At the same time, C-level executives are relying on their managers to be an extension of the culture that’s evolving within the organization, along with managers’ own daily workloads and their mandate to drive performance and innovation in firm services in a dynamic and competitive business environment.

Thus, it becomes critical for employers to make sure that their managers are addressing their own holistic well-being needs in order to maintain a competitive edge. Stephen Parker, Chief Human Resources Officer at the global consulting firm Kearney puts it this way, “A dead battery can’t spark another one.”

3. Embrace the intangibility of cultural values

A lot of employers have increased benefit offerings around well-being, including discounted subscriptions to fitness and meditation apps and help with financial wellness. Some organizations are even offering mental health holidays.

While these mechanisms have been widely popular, limiting these offerings as the only parts of your well-being strategy will likely result in your efforts falling short. To make employee well-being part of their culture, organizations have to recognize that well-being is multifaceted and involves emotional, physical, and mental health along with a connection with mind, body, and spirit. Indeed, the spirit part is almost never acknowledged as a workplace topic and is even more stigmatized than discussing mental health at work.

However, when viewed through the organizational culture lens, spirit shows up as alignment between employee and organizational values and a sense that each employee is contributing to something larger than themselves. It also manifests a sense of community and belonging that can result in each employee feeling they can bring their whole selves to work.

Putting these steps into actions requires a multi-pronged approach and long-term commitment. Consistent discussion of values in executive messaging and corporate communications is the first key step. Next, leaders should repeatedly act in alignment with these values in a visible way. Finally, managers should proactively exchange views and check in with their team in one-on-one meetings consistently.

4. Examine staff capacity and ensure employees are doing high-value work

Accounting firms have some choice in choosing their clients. In fact, global growth for accounting services is expected to increase 12.7% in 2022 and remain above 11% annually through 2026, which suggests firms can stand to be more picky in terms of what clients they retain and which new clients they bring on. It is worth doing an exercise to analyze how much value in terms of revenue and profitability your most challenging clients are providing because this is an easy way to address burn-out and frustration among those employees that work with these clients.

Offshoring is also an option, and accounting firm Warren Averett pursued this a few years ago to save its US-based employees from working so hard during busy season.

5. Recruit well-being ambassadors

To embed holistic well-being into the firm’s DNA, Kearney employs mental health ambassadors, who receive training to help remove the stigma of discussing mental health in the workplace and also to increase the firm’s ability to provide support and direct staff to additional resources.

Tax & accounting employers that follow these five ways to jump-start their initiatives for employee well-being may be able to gain an advantage over the competition as a early adopter. Clearly, the time is now for action in this area. As Baker Tilly’s CEO Alan Whitman recently declared, it’s time to break down the structural realities of the accounting profession that are unfortunately no longer working (if they ever did). These include such mainstays of the industry as the so-called busy season that is no longer just four months and management’s focus on the number of hours worked rather than the work itself. “Redefining the workweek based on accomplishment and well-being, not hours,” Whitman exclaimed. “Recasting, reworking, redoing to find better balance and be our best.” Yep, this sounds about right.

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