November 18, 2022

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Toxic workplaces

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but accounting firms haven’t always been the nurturing pleasure dens that they’re made out to be today. No, my friends, time was, accounting firms were whitecollar sweatshops where long hours for relatively meager pay, spending a lot of time away from loved ones, and endless waves of crippling stress were treated as badges of honor. If that didn’t suit you, no problem; firms would gladly put you out to pasture to toil in an industry where you could go home at a reasonable hour and still make a decent living. “No problem, most people can’t cut it,” they said.

I’m kidding, of course. Some accounting firms are still like this! But, to be fair, many of today’s accounting leaders have let go of the pain they endured in toxic firms to make the profession more hospitable to more people. People like my friend Amber Setter have been talking publicly about this stuff for years, and I think people might—might!—finally be listening. 

But even as accounting is trying to evolve away from its old reputation, the American workplace in general has moved in the opposite direction. Technology has allowed us to be accessible virtually anywhere, which led to hustle culture and productivity obsession that consumed countless workplaces. So, in accounting’s defense, it was creating toxic workplaces long before it was cool. 

On the other hand, toxic workplaces were never cool, and from a public health standpoint, anyway, we’ve finally gotten around to recognizing that:

The U.S. surgeon general is telling Americans for the first time that disrespectful or cutthroat workplaces could be hazardous to their health.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s office—which is more often associated with warnings about nicotine, Zika and the Covid-19 pandemic—issued a guidance Thursday outlining how long hours, limited autonomy and low wages can affect workers’ health and organizational performance. Chronic stress disrupts sleep, increases vulnerability to infection and has been linked to conditions ranging from heart disease to depression, the document said, citing research from the American Psychological Association and a Stanford University psychologist.

“Toxic workplaces are harmful to workers—to their mental health, and it turns out, to their physical health as well,” Dr. Murthy said, and accountants everywhere responded, “KNOCK ME OVER WITH A FEATHER.” In some ways, it feels like the general workforce is learning lessons that the accounting profession learned long ago. I suppose the next thing we’ll learn is that tracking how people spend their working hours is demoralizing and micromanage-y.

Cartoonish mega billionaire is too busy

Last time we checked in on everyone’s favorite cartoonish mega billionaire (CMB), Elon Musk, he was sharing his thoughts on remote work that no one asked for. A lot has transpired since then, and wouldn’t you know it, Elon picked up another part-time job. This happened, at least in part, because of unjustified overconfidence, a client problem that I wrote about a while back. 

In any event, because Elon Musk doesn’t really surround himself with people who might say, “You sure, dude?” that may have finally caught up to him:

“I have too much work on my plate, that’s for sure,” Musk said Monday during an appearance at B20 Indonesia, a business conference running alongside this week’s Group of 20 summit in Bali. “I’m working the absolute most that I can work — morning to night, seven days a week.”

“[T]his is not something I’d recommend, frankly,” he also said, and maybe I’m wrong, but all it would’ve taken was one person to say, “You don’t have to, you know.” But what do I know? Elon would’ve probably fired that person.

I guess my point is that if you advise people who don’t really listen to anyone else and often bite off more than they can chew, then what can you do besides shrug and look as surprised as they do while they thrash around and complain about having too much to do. 

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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