The state of UK accounting: a tale of stress and burnout?

By Adam Zoucha, EMEA MD, FloQast

Accountants know that in the 2020s, our profession is far more than just bean-counting. As the pace of change and the capability of technology increase, accountants have a significant opportunity to step into a more strategic role with an opportunity to help senior leaders better understand what’s going on in the business. They can identify the opportunities, challenges, and make wise strategic decisions based on sound financial data. The more information accountants can provide the C-suite, the more they can help drive effective business performance and support their organisations in navigating rough economic waters.

Most significantly, however, is that the strategic value in accounting is intrinsically tied to operational excellence. Financial information needs to be high quality and available at speed if it’s to add value to senior decision-makers. But for many accountants, that’s easier said than done. To find out how teams in the UK are doing on the road to accounting operational excellence, FloQast recently conducted a survey of 500 finance directors and controllers in UK organisations. 

The picture it reveals is complex. Although the pandemic has fast-tracked a move toward a more strategic role for most accountants — usually one more fulfilling than simply checking the boxes on recurring, mundane tasks — large numbers also report high levels of stress and burnout, often tied to tighter deadlines, regulatory pressure, and technology issues. As a consequence, they are seeking new opportunities.

Here are the headline findings — and what we can learn from them about how best to achieve accounting operational excellence.

A mountain to climb

According to the report, one-third of professionals (33%) are unsure or unconfident in the accuracy of their month-end figures, while 40% admit they are failing to meet accounting operational excellence. 

Think about that for a second – imagine what inaccurate reports could mean for businesses struggling to stay afloat.

The causes of these difficulties are clear. Respondents said that increasing requirements around tightening deadlines (36%), existing applications and technology (35%), and complex compliance and regulatory tasks (32%) are the three main barriers to achieving accounting operational excellence. In other words, accountants have more work to do in less time, and often don’t have the tools they need to make it happen.

The human cost

As a result of these difficulties, we’re seeing increased levels of stress taking their toll on the workforce. Although nearly three in four (72%) respondents said they felt a degree of job satisfaction, closer to nine in ten (87%) say their team has lost staff due to burnout. 

Of those, nearly half (46%) cited the stress of month-end close as the specific cause of their departure. What’s more, accountants who are mostly working from home are most stressed (75%) during month-end, suggesting some teams are still running antiquated systems, which are getting in the way of operational excellence and, simply put, driving staff to distraction.

Month-end is a fundamental part of the job. But it definitely shouldn’t be such a trial that it causes people to give up on their accounting career altogether. If accountants are facing an insurmountable challenge with their current systems and workflows, then something needs to change. Better collaboration, transparency, and speed of processes with improved automation are needed now. 

A bright future

Despite these challenges, 99% say their role has evolved during the pandemic, with the top changes being a greater involvement in technology decisions (46%) and a growing demand from the executive team to provide strategic business insights (44%). And the impact has been positive: three quarters (75%) would like to be responsible for at least the same, or more, strategic tasks in the coming two-to-three years.

Clearly, accountants are keen to step into this more strategic remit. But, it’s essential their organisations support them with the tools and processes they need to get the job done — not just pile on the pressure and expectation without investing accordingly. With well-trained, talented accountants hard to come by, organisations need to see them as the valuable assets they are and do everything they can to retain them.

Taking the grunt work off their plate has to be priority number one. As the tools of the trade become more sophisticated, advanced automation capabilities are increasingly accessible to smaller organisations. Workflow management, cross-team visibility, data standardisation, and high-capacity collaboration are now accessible to everyone with the right tools. The technology now on the SME market has the potential to remove tedious repetitive tasks from accountants without compromising on quality, freeing them up to focus on more strategic work – so they can dedicate their skills to the kind of work that really stretches and engages them, and drives the business forward.

With the basics handled by intelligent software, everybody wins. Senior management can trust the numbers they’re receiving, and trust that they’ll get them on time – and accountants will begin to see a decrease in stress levels, as their systems help carry the load, rather than adding to it.

By Adam Zoucha, EMEA MD, FloQast

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