2018 in practice: Stress and sweary accountants

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From sweary accountants to burn-out culture and compliance burdens, 2018 was a pretty tough year for accountants in practice.

When AccountingWEB reflected on the 2017 highs and lows for the accountant in practice, regular reader John Jenkins predicted that 2018 would see the “first televised meeting with aliens”. Unbelievably, just one month later, alien sightings actually topped HMRC’s tax return excuses list (“I couldn’t file my return on time as my wife has been seeing aliens and won’t let me enter the house,” claimed one taxpayer).   

In any other year, an intergalactic sighting would have been the biggest story on AccountingWEB. But then, this was the year where stress levels surged and accountants behaved badly.

Naughty accountants

The year for an accountant in practice started rather appropriately with a sweary outburst. For one accountant, the age-old war over fees escalated to a profanity-laced rant. The accountant saw “red mist” when he confronted his clients outside a Sheffield pub.

The accountant’s ‘effing’ punctuated a year where bottled-up frustration burst into disobedience, and it’s no wonder considering how one start-up sole practitioner was accused of being “too nice” to scale. This year, accountants in practice were hauled in front of disciplinary panels with complaints involving derogatory and highly offensive Facebook comments and a drink-driving hit-and-run incident.

Maybe a Hippocratic Oath is needed to curb accountants’ potty mouths or insubordination? Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell proposed this ethical pledge in February as a way to curtail big accountancy firm employees from “coming up with all these bizarre” tax avoidance schemes.

Always-on culture

But could these outbursts and misbehaviour be a symptom of something else? What AccountingWEB’s regular practice talk series this year has demonstrated is how the vast majority of accountants in practice can’t let go of their business; in particular, the insidious dominion emails hold.

Alistair Hayward-Wright is an example of the effects the always-on culture can have on an accountant in practice. Clasped by the psychological shackles of emails, he felt compelled to respond every time his smartphone buzzed. The sheer number of hours took a toll on Hayward-Wright’s personal life and he ended up making silly mistakes.

Client satisfaction?

It's little wonder then why Jennifer Adam’s ‘save an hour a week, gain one extra week a year’ article proved so popular in June. While Hayward-Wright achieved his practice nirvana by setting boundaries, the option at the top of Adam’s list was learning to say no to clients. You know, the ones who want their SA302 and tax overview done today.

It’s a lesson AccountingWEB member Cardigan had to learn the hard way in early September when their significantly sized client turned out to be more trouble than they’re worth (despite being worth more 50% of their practice).

Another option to deal with clients emerged from 2018’s Accounting Excellence entrants where firms are using cloud tools and the human side of client satisfaction to strengthen client relationships.

Negative noise

There are some stresses that practitioners can’t solve on their own. Sole practitioners have had an unprecedented amount of change thrown at them. Beyond the MTD uncertainty or fees squeezed, Elaine Clark blamed the ‘overlaying negative noise’ in the profession for the skyrocketing sole practitioner stress levels.

By the end of the year, Clark hit back against the negativity and the compliance bashers, and her ‘I Love Compliance’ campaign became a rebuttal to the rise of advisory services (and the decline of compliance) rhetoric.

GDP-argh!

Accountants in practice were offered respite from the advisory services thought leadership in May as practitioners braced themselves for data regulation stresses. Practices tied themselves in knots in order to untangle the complexities of becoming GDPR compliant.  

Surviving the misconceptions and data breach fears, practitioners have responded to the lack of hefty ICO fines and moving on with their lives the day after the GDPR deadline. Whether GDPR is the 2018 millennium bug remains to be seen.

Worst self assessment season ever?

However, there is one annual compliance deadline that practices can’t forget about, and 2018 was no different - despite this writer’s Michael Fish-like proclamation that “the January rush is a myth”.

If anything, 2018 self assessment season ended being more stressful than ever, with new and unanticipated HMRC exclusions emerging during the thick of the season and of course, the perennial issue of clients waiting until the last two weeks to bring in their tax return information.

One accountant even told this writer that 2018 self-assessment season was the worst one yet.

And to think, it started so well with many AccountingWEB readers reporting how they’d pushed their season forward so they didn’t have to work silly hours in January. However, an unforeseen challenge for many firms was staff sickness. Even before the inclement wintery chill became the beast from the east blizzard, the lingering lurgy put nine out of Mazuma Accountants 24 staff at off sick.

Recruitment crunch

Cohen is considering a range of remedies to ensure this doesn’t happen in 2019 such as surge pricing and working from home. Another option may be recruitment, but finding the right candidate equipped for digitalisation and the advisory-based services firms now offer has become a headache for many practitioners (and still remains an Any Answers hot topic).

The death of the traditional number cruncher led Accounting Excellence alumni Olly Evans to create a new ‘Xero technologist’ position. With no suitable candidates in the current marketplace, Evans targeted IT graduates.

Working with schools and taking on apprentices were some options explored to recruit a different kind of recruit that reflects modern-day requirements.

Similarly, Shoreham-by-Sea accountants PJCO hired graduates and enrolled them on an ACCA training programme in order spearhead their cloud offerings. With a blank piece of paper, PJCO’s cloud champion’s cloud revolution led to QuickBooks recognising the firm as its 2018 UK firm of the future.

Reasons to be cheerful

2018 wasn’t stressful for all accountants. This year saw Banks befriends accountants again. RBS/Natwest, for example, has created a business growth outreach programme where regional managers and colleagues are working more closely with accountants and their clients.

The ‘what to get an accountant for Christmas’ discussion at the year also offered many reasons or gifts to make accountants cheerful

And let us not forget the one accountant whose mind was surely not focused on any of the stress mentioned above; second in Companies House list of most bizarre excuses for late accounts was “I found my wife in the bath with my accountant”. That likely led to another sweary exchange with an accountant but for a totally different reason.

Seeing as John Jenkins was spot on with his 2018 alien sightings predictions, what has 2019 got in store for us, John?

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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18th Dec 2018 10:07

Nice one Richard (You've waited all year to get me on that one). However Aliens were televised just lately in the House of Commons. They come from the planet Bluetitical. Unfortunately they are being destroyed by a rare disease called Brexititus, which, if not Chequered could allow the aliens from planet Eurosuranus to dominate.

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