September 9, 2021
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Accountants and happiness
I worked as a CPA for over five years at the beginning of my career. Looking back on it, I’m grateful for the experience because it led me to where I am today. But was I happy during that time? I’m not so sure. There are any number of reasons that would explain why I wasn’t happy, but one of them surely was that I was working a lot, and I didn’t feel fairly compensated for that work—and that, generally speaking, is not a recipe for happiness. The silver lining was that everyone I worked with was in similar circumstances, and misery loves company, of course.
The last job I had before I left to start Going Concern was an in-house analyst job. The pay was fair for the work, but I was still unhappy. What is clear to me now, is that ending my accounting career is what got me on the path to being happy.
The question is: Should more accountants do what I did? I don’t mean becoming a blogger to write strange things on the internet and air the profession’s dirty laundry. I mean stop doing work that is making them—you!—unhappy.
And if you don’t believe me that accountants are unhappy, here’s the Arthur C. Brooks essay that spurred this segment:
Researchers who have looked for clear relationships between job satisfaction and the actual type of job one holds have overwhelmingly struck out. CareerBliss, a company dedicated to helping people find greater happiness at work, has published survey results of the “happiest jobs” and the “unhappiest jobs,” as rated by those who hold them. Its most recent rankings, from 2018, show the happiest jobs to be quite disparate: teaching assistant, quality-assurance analyst, net developer, marketing specialist. The unhappiest jobs are similarly grab-baggy, and fairly unrelated to education and income: accountant, security guard, cashier, supervisor.
Okay, but does one accountant-turned-blogger and one survey make an unhappy profession? Maybe! But maybe not! Back to the Brooks essay, where he discusses the two “intrinsic goals” to be happier at work. The first is “earned success” (aka a sense of accomplishment). The other:
The second goal worth pursuing at work is service to others—the sense that your job is making the world a better place. That doesn’t mean you need to volunteer or work for a charity to be happy […]. On the contrary, you can find service in almost any job.
Many accountants surely identify with this: the premise that they serve their clients with various difficult things that make their lives easier, their businesses more successful, etc. This should provide a ton of job satisfaction. You could also easily conclude that a client’s success results in “earned success” as well. So if the two big factors in work happiness are present within the accounting profession, then how does that square with the unhappiest jobs results?
Like my own unhappiness in accounting, there are potentially countless explanations: bad boss, bad clients, bad company, bad co-workers, who knows? But what’s almost certain is that something changed for the accountants surveyed. Maybe they had experienced plenty of earned success and service to others—the things that cause people to be happy at work. But they likely weren’t experiencing them when they took that survey:
[I]t’s worth noting that a good job can become a bad one without any changes that would be obvious to an outsider.
So does this mean that accountants become disillusioned more often than workers in other jobs? Maybe. But could the pandemic have changed that? Again, maybe. Clients that took their accountants for granted now may see them in a whole new light: that this person or firm is essential to their survival and success. If so, then perhaps the sense of service has been restored for many accountants. But you could imagine it going the other way, too. That, for some, the service or sense of accomplishment has gotten lost in the fog of never-ending demands, administration, and noise.
I have talked to numerous happy accountants over the years, clearly committed to the profession and their clients. So maybe the unhappy ones are just keeping it to themselves? If so, I’m here for you. Armchair therapists need armchair therapists, after all.
Any time you work somewhere, there’s a period of awkwardness where you don’t know many people, and they don’t know you. Then events happen—a lunch, or a happy hour, or a project that keeps you working late for weeks—and the bonding happens.
Like many things before the pandemic, many of us took the bonding for granted. We just thought we’d always get to interact with new and old colleagues on a regular basis, at lunch or happy hour or late nights working. The pandemic closed bars and restaurants and most offices, so all those opportunities evaporated.
Even for those workplaces that managed to stay open, it’s been weird. Still no lunch or happy hours, and you couldn’t really get physically close to your colleagues. Many places put up plexiglass so it felt like you were living in a fishbowl. It’s awkward enough working in an office, and the pandemic really upped the ante.
So how did workers bond IRL? Basically like everyone else: food and TV:
At Branson, Fowlkes & Co., a Houston wealth-management company whose office has been open throughout the pandemic, its nine employees started eating lunch in the office to minimize exposure at restaurants or take-out joints. During the midday break, they watched the Showtime series “Billions” together. “The collaboration and chemistry is much better,” says President Jay Branson.
Oh, and did I mention food?
In Dayton, Ohio, Megan Randall, a marketing specialist at AmeriWater LLC, says returning to the office this past May was bittersweet after more than a year of mostly remote work. Social-distancing protocols, and knowing that she and many colleagues are vaccinated, have boosted her comfort level.
One of the brightest moments was when someone brought doughnuts to the office in June. Given general fears about sharing food, at least in the early part of the pandemic, “I was shocked,” she says. Then she noticed that the box was already partly empty: The fact that her colleagues took them, just as they had pre-pandemic, cheered her, she says.
“I definitely noted their presence,” she says, of the office treats.
“I definitely noted their presence,” strikes me as a little, uh, judgmental? But this isn’t unusual. Many people judge doughnuts wrongly, and then notice that people enjoy them just fine without any guilt at all, and their spirits are lifted. “Yes, I should enjoy a doughnut, and bond with my colleagues about how I, too, love doughnuts,” a person might say.
Fortunately, in some ways, the pandemic hasn’t really changed things at all.
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- Adding Value to the Employee Lifecycle with People Advisory Services with Jaclyn Anku and me on September 16.
- How to Unlock Your Firm’s Capacity for Advisory Services with Yoseph West of Relay and Will Lopez on September 22.
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