Stressed Accountants Reveal Their Torment

 
"Alcohol helped me to relax, as I wasn't getting the support from anywhere else" tells a similar, depressing story for many accountants, as they increasingly turn to drink or drugs to find solace from the pressures of the office. International personal tax consultant and sole practitioner Steven Sherman decided drinking was the only way he could deal with stress. He drank 34 units a week, well over the recommended 21 units limit. Personal and work-related stresses saw him attempt suicide.
 
After the attempt he contacted the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA). Although the association was unable to offer him a counselling service, he feels indebted to them for giving him the support and confidence to turn his life around and seek professional help. Although you can't cure someone over the phone, CABA gave him "ideas" on what he felt were achievable targets that would create a better work life balance and tackle his personal problems.
 
CABA has been traditionally sought by older accountants nearing retirement age requiring help as to what their next step should be, how they could manage their pension, and what would happen next in their career. However, that age range is now declining rapidly, with accountants in their thirties and forties calling in with wide ranging problems including substance abuse.
 
In 2006 the average age of an accountant seeking the charities support was 64, now that age bracket has fallen to 48. For younger accountants they are entering the profession with large debts and less disposable income said Haines. According to chief executive Kath Haines there are many younger accountants who are finding the recession hard work, as well as struggling to face up to supporting multiple families, health problems and debt.
 
Stress levels in the UK have doubled in the last four years, according to the International Stress Management Association. In the recession's wake, many accountants have found themselves taking on more work, longer hours couple with lower job security. The accumulation of these factors has led to rising levels of substance abuse in the profession. In response, CABA has beefed up its staff numbers, creating a specialist support division with a dedicated team of ten people in the last year.
 
Drugs and alcohol abuse are often symptoms of stress and other underlying social and economic problems, Haines adds. Such was the case with Robert Newman, whose drug and alcohol abuse masked his bipolar disorder. Previously he had blamed his severe mood swings on his substance abuse.
 
The former Big Four accountant told Accountancy Age that he regularly disappeared on weeks-long drink and drug binges in an attempt to forget about the pressures of work. Yet he said that he enjoyed his job and was very good at it - which is why he was able to "get away" with his binges. But the drug-taking came about as a result of his stress levels, and that habit masked the real problem. 
 
CABA recently surveyed 1,126 accountants, asking them what they believed were the top ten issues affecting them. The majority cited stress, long working hours and an imbalance between work and social life as the main concerns.
Nearly half felt the increase in regulation was adding to their stress level and adversely affecting their work. More than one in five said they were feeling pressure from clients to finesse their accounts - to present them in a more favourable light.
 
Both the charity and Big Four firms do not offer rehab services to accountants seeking help. However, both offer outsourced services of professional counsellors and guidance on local support. The ICAEW supports the charity, and offers its own members support service. The institute has a team of volunteers to offer support, plus a 24-hour telephone helpline.
 
"There will always be limits to the help that bodies such as ourselves can provide," said Kath Haines. "We do not offer, for example, legal, business or technical guidance. In these instances, we often guide people towards other sources of advice such as ICAEW's Support Members," said Haines.
 
The charity was currently developing services beyond simple financial support, she added. CABA, which will celebrate its 125th birthday in March 2011, handed out £1.2m to 347 households in the last year and has allocated 71% of its £2.1m budget to help ICAEW members next year.