One of the biggest problems faced by accountants everywhere is work overload. You never hear an accountant saying that they aren’t busy. The problem is – if you’re good, word gets around and people come to you. Our product is our time (and expertise), we can’t just crank up the production levels – there is only one of each of us.
This problem is particularly acute now because of a series of unfortunate events. It actually started with the financial crisis of 2008 because afterwards, accountancy firms seemed to significantly reduce their investment in trainees. The timing coincided with significant improvements in tech, which meant that you needed less unskilled labour, but more of the skilled advisory accountants. There became a severe shortage in experienced, skilled accountants, because of the reluctance to invest in trainees after the financial crisis. Before that could improve, along came Brexit, followed by the Covid pandemic. The combination served to further reduce the availability of skilled staff. But at the same time, there was a huge amount of work pressure in helping business clients deal with the pandemic, and dealing with legislation changes on an almost daily basis, at times.
At Elsby’s, we’re lucky to have such a great team, who are committed to helping our clients (and each other) when they need it, and especially when they need it the most. During the pandemic, our payroll team pulled out all of the stops, doing whatever it took to help our clients sort out their payroll and furlough, often dealing with highly complex matters at the drop of a hat, with a matter of urgency. They did this without complaint – they even seemed to relish it! Our accountancy team was the same, dealing with grants, clients having all kinds of problems, in addition to the normal work. The rest of the office supported and it was great to see the team effort. After the pandemic, the same spirit has continued, but the partners have seen evidence of mental fatigue amongst everybody, ourselves and clients included!
Now that normal (ish) times have returned, we’ve experienced significant increases in demand for our services, at a time when our team have been shattered after their huge commitment. We have a great team, provide a great service, and we go the extra mile to help our clients, and this leads to more demand. It is a huge danger that as this happens, there is a natural increase in the amount of work pressure that everybody experiences.
This pressure can easily lead to stress, which has a bigger impact on the individual and the business. The most common cause of stress in the UK is work-related stress with 79% saying they frequently felt it. When stress becomes unmanageable, it becomes an issue which can damage both performance and health. The workplace health report states that a staggering 13.7 million working days are lost each year in the UK because of work-related stress, anxiety and depression – costing £28.3 billion yearly (NICE). Of the causes of stress at work, workload was found to be the biggest cause with 73% in 2023.
I’ve been asked to explain what we Partners have done to help alleviate this problem. The biggest thing we have done, and continue to do, is to recruit ferociously. My main responsibility is the strategic direction of the firm, and my top aim is to consistently be ahead in terms of staff capacity, ie to have more staff in place than we need to carry out our work. I want all of our team to continue carrying out their brilliant work, but to be able to do it in an unpressured way, and to have time to do those extra things that progress their learning and development. It is unbelievably difficult to achieve this! What you find is that as you approach that position of utopia, people do an even better job, and then even more work arises! This is what is happening at the moment, and is why we always seem to be recruiting for high quality people.
The long term solution is to invest in trainees so we are looking at an intake of 6 – 8 trainees this year. This process again needs a massive commitment. It isn’t just about the recruitment of trainees, but we are also implementing a much improved formal training structure. This removes much of the responsibility from our accountants and puts it in the hands of people whose passion is training, who love to see the growth and development of our trainee intake.
At the same time, we invest heavily in training and development of the soft management skills of our accountants. Management is very different to being an accountant, and we recognise this, and provide a huge amount of support in this area, which is showing through in the way our teams are working together. We recently invested in recruiting the hugely experienced Ann Philips as Learning & Development Manager. This move is already paying dividends as improvements in our systems, procedures, skills and practices, are making everything more efficient, and this is reducing the work pressure!
I’m pleased to say that I THINK we’re in a position where we’ve achieved my aim of being ahead in terms of staff capacity, meaning less work pressure. But as I say that, the commitment of our team is incredible! We’re entering a new financial year, traditionally our quieter period, and the team are going full throttle in getting organised and getting ahead – their appetite is insatiable, and I love it! I’d like to have a month of rest myself, but if I stop trying to recruit, I know we’ll revert back to a pressure situation. The team is driving me, not the other way around!
It would be fair to say that managing work pressure is a constant discussion point at partner meetings. We take it very seriously and there are a whole range of different measures we’ve implemented. But in terms of what makes the biggest difference, it is definitely the huge amount of effort that goes into recruitment and retention of staff – and getting ahead, rather than being reactive.