Insider – Survival tactics

Dick Watkins is fairly typical of accounting profession highflyers. Having worked his way up the career ladder to the heady heights of client service partner at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, his lifestyle was a cocktail of long working hours, executive airport lounges, and a work hard/play hard culture. In a nutshell he was taking his health for granted.

But in the nineties all that changed when a massive heart attack forced him to take stock of his life and re-evaluate his lifestyle and priorities. Once recovered from his triple heart bypass surgery, you might not be surprised to hear that work didn’t occupy as big a proportion of his life as it used to.

Stress and a long hours culture is, for most, synonymous with a career in accountancy. Just last month, the result of the latest Accountancy Age/Robert Half salary survey found that, on average, accountants now work a 49-hour week, compared to around 41 hours just six months earlier. Average figures conceal a significant number of employees putting in at least 60 hours every week.

And as skills issues, in particular a dearth of IFRS and Sarbanes-Oxley expertise, plague companies across the UK – the pressure’s certainly showing no sign of abating. Some 27% of respondents said they felt guilty if they didn’t put in extra hours – among partners in accountancy firms, that figure rises to one in three.

The long-hours culture is just one factor contributing to the rising tide of stress plaguing the profession. More demanding clients, bigger and higher-profile assignments, and increased time away from home away from the support of family and friends are hardly helping matters. The deal has changed – and it’s not gone unnoticed.

A poll of 120 accountants, published last month by specialist recruitment consultancy Macildowie Associates, paints a worrying picture. An emphatic majority of respondents, aged up to 35, claim their job is becoming more stressful, prompting more than a quarter to say they now regretted their career choice.

More than just an inconvenience, the Health and Safety Executive estimates that work-related stress costs society around £3.7bn a year with over 13 million working days lost annually. The UK’s epidemic is so bad that the government this month launched a major initiative to help employers manage stress in the workplace.

PricewaterhouseCoopers is one Big Four firm that’s already tackling the issue head on – and has been for some time. Eight years ago, the firm launched its partner and director survival course – consisting of an in-depth medical and a two-day residential programme to help delegates better balance the needs of work, family, personal health and fitness.

The firm runs around 20 courses a year and to date more than 500 of the firm’s current partners – including chairman Kieran Poynter – have been through the ‘survival’ residential.

Dick Watkin, well and truly recovered from his heart health scare, has for the past six years been acting as a consultant to PwC in rolling out the courses around the world.

The course is a sort of holistic health check offering practical advice – both in group discussions and one-to-one sessions with experts – on how making small changes to diet, nutrition, exercise and psychological wellbeing can help to combat the stresses of the job.

The course I attended took place at a luxurious hotel and spa in the Wiltshire countryside. It consisted of a series of fascinating talks covering a range of health, fitness and stress-related issues, one-to-one sessions with the course’s experts, a massage and a yoga lesson interspersed with your choice of exercise – swimming, gym, running.

Exercise physiologist Chris Williams encourage delegates to be more active, more often. ‘Attempt to create a positive health bank balance through sound investments in activity,’ he preached. He continued the finance analogy with warnings that ‘health is wealth – and being overdrawn in your health bank account can have terminal consequences’.

Nutritionalist Dr John Briffa, perhaps more well known for his weekly column in The Observer magazine, exploded a few myths about healthy eating – ‘low fat eating does not help with weight loss’ – and urged attendees to make their diet more primal, eating foods that were available to the hunter gatherer.

Psychologist Tim Kynt, meanwhile, offered tips on managing the stress spiral, better partitioning between work and home life, and scheduling in ‘me’ time (or perhaps getting your PA to do it).

The overall message is clear – get your priorities right or you too could be heading for trouble.

But with an audience consisting primarily of alpha males (just the odd female on my course), getting the message across is not without its challenges.

Watkin is the first to admit that the firm and its competitors in the market are in some respects their own worst enemies, as they actively seek to recruit precisely those highly driven, ambitious and impatient individuals who are also most susceptible to heart attacks, strokes and other stress-related health problems.

The delegates on one course, in particular, struggled to leave their competitive streak at home. In the absence of any formal opportunities to shine over their peers, they resorted to comparing their medical reports to see who could win a rather hastily organised competition for the attendee with the highest blood pressure.

PwC must be applauded for its efforts. By organising the course, and allowing partners time out of the office to participate, the firm is giving the green light for partners to take work/life balance issues seriously.

There’s also a knock-on effect as word gets out about the programme – again this sends out positive message to employees around the firm that working less and taking time out to take care of yourself is important.

The firm’s motivation cannot, however, be described as entirely altruistic. After all, the delegates – all at the highest echelons of the company – are expensive to train, and even more costly to replace. Keeping them healthy and at the peak of their performance helps them better manage the pressures of day-to-day life and offers productivity benefits – in a nutshell, it makes good business sense.

I have to admit, the course is nothing short of life changing – after two days I felt hugely motivated and almost evangelical about making some serious changes to my own lifestyle. But four months on, some of the old habits have started to creep back in, and I can’t help wondering if the partners on my course have stuck as religiously to their new regimes as they would have liked.

Giving yourself permission to address work/life balance is a must – but at the end of the day partners have a job to do. The theory is great until there’s a promotion to be had, a client to service or a boss to placate. As one respondent to the Macildowie study put it, ‘Being able to access your work files from home might seem a great bonus to start with, but what it actually means is that you never really leave the office.’

Food for thought
Client lunches are a part of the job, but as the Christmas entertaining season approaches, it’s worth bearing in mind that you really are what you eat – the body is in a state of constant renewal and replenishes 98% of itself each year. Taking stock of your diet and following these tips can play a vital role in improving your health, preventing disease – and ensuring you’re performing at your peak.

Eat three meals a day with healthy snacks in between
This helps maintain the metabolism and keep blood sugar levels stable.

Eat five servings of fruit and/or vegetables a day
This is associated with a reduced risk of all the major conditions including heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.

Drink more water – one to two litres each day
Good for general wellbeing and appears to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer.

Eat oily fish, and plenty of virgin olive oil, raw nuts, seeds and avocado
These healthy fats help to protect against heart disease, cancer and depression.

Eat wholegrains whenever possible
These have been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners
These upset the blood sugar balance, reduce good cholesterol, can increase blood ‘stickiness’ and inhibit the immune function of the body.

Avoid processed foods, ready meals, fast food and takeaways
These are often rich in ‘trans’ fats (partially hydrogenated fats), salt and other additives.

Go easy on caffeine
Can cause high blood pressure, blood sugar problems, heart rhythm irregularities, anxiety and depression and kidney stones.

Make sure you limit your alcohol intake
There is some evidence that alcohol reduces the risk of heart attacks but the most recent evidence suggest that for men aged 50+ the optimum amount to drink is less than one unit per day – for women, the optimum amount appears to be none.

Source: PwC/Dr Tom Briffa.

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