Comment – Accountants can get a life too

Do you remember the 1995 English ICA advertising campaign: ‘It’s easier to sleep with a chartered accountant’? It probably had little long-term impact on the lives of the general public although it remains memorable to most accountants.

It changed my life.

Accountancy Age printed my letter on the subject. One response told me in no uncertain terms to ‘get a life’. At the time I laughed it off, but it set me thinking. Did I really have a life – a life beyond accountancy?

I thought I did. I was pleased with the way I organised my working life.

I thought that I had good practice management skills which allowed me as much freedom and flexibility as I was likely to find as a partner in general practice. But I was still in the office for long hours. When I got home I was too exhausted mentally and physically to do anything else.

And I am not alone. Almost every partner in the UK works very long hours.

The introduction of self-assessment has made matters worse. Pressure on fees makes it likely that this trend will continue.

Are these long hours good for our profession? The answer has to be a resounding ‘no’. As we move towards the 21st century we have to find alternative ways of working that can meet the needs of our clients, our employees and ourselves.

If we don’t, the survival of the small general practice could be at stake because we won’t be able to attract sufficient talented people into practice.

As business advisers we are going to become narrow and introspective because we have no time to be anything else.

Are these long hours good for us personally? The answer for most of us again has to be ‘no’. My life was out of balance. I took the difficult step of resigning from my partnership and have spent a three-month sabbatical travelling alone around Australia. I have returned with a different view of the world and the place of work within it. I work enough to meet my material needs and I now have time for other things in life. It isn’t just a utopian dream.

So how can you as a partner or principal reduce the hours you work? Decide how much you want to earn. Then work out how many hours you want to work and calculate your overheads. Translate these figures into an ideal number of clients. Stick to that number. Learn to say no to work and don’t take on more clients than you want to handle. If your target hours don’t match the finances look at what changes are necessary.

Make sure that your partners have similar goals and stop supporting a work culture that equates the number of hours worked with success. Be open to innovative ways of working. We need more partners in practice but they need to be working shorter hours for fewer clients.

Flexibility will also make partnership more attractive to women, especially those with childcare responsibilities.

So can we all have a life? I hope so. I feel optimistic. Life (and the accountancy profession) is what we make it.

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