The Kentucky CPA Journal


Coping with the busy season in US Public Accounting Firms

Issue 1
February 27, 2023

By Sammie D. Parsley, DBA, CPA, CMA, CIA, CGMA 


This paper sets out to provide commentary on the extant body of literature in the stream of behavioral research in accounting. More specifically, the discussion that follows will focus on existing research examining the psychological effects and subsequent job outcomes of the busy season workload in US public accounting firms. Although anecdotal evidence seems to have been around for decades, scientific research exploring this relationship has been scarce in accounting literature until recent years. Based upon important recent research findings, public accounting firms can develop policies to promote an organizational culture that will help mitigate the negative effects of tremendous workloads that accounting professionals encounter during peak seasonal demands. 


Overall job satisfaction continues to emerge as an important factor in predicting retention of valued employees (Boswell, Boudreau, & Tichy, 2005). Work-life balance was reported as a factor of high concern by more than 75 percent of respondents in a survey of AICPA members (Almer, 2007). Results of the prior empirical studies examining the relationships between psychological effects caused by busy season workloads and subsequent job outcomes tend to underscore the importance of work-life balance in public accounting firms, both large and small organizations. 

In more recent years, an oft employed measure to mitigate the negative effect of burnout from the busy season in public accounting firms is the implementation of alternative work arrangements (AWAs). Such work arrangements have been introduced to improve work-life effectiveness and ultimately reduce job burnout. Buchheit, Dalton, Harp, and Hollingsworth (2016) found that while CPAs across all public accounting firms seem to have organizational support for AWAs, employees of Big 4 accounting firms report lower perceived viability of such arrangements compared to their counterparts working in smaller firms. Their research posed the following questions: 

  1. Do auditors differ from tax professionals regarding work-family conflict, burnout, and perceptions regarding alternative work arrangements? 
  2. Do individuals working in public accounting firms differ from those working in private accounting with regard to perceptions of AWAs? 

Findings report that while Big 4 employees experience higher levels of work-family conflict than professionals in local firms, they do not experience higher levels of work-family conflict than employees at mid-sized firms. Furthermore, Big 4 professionals perceive AWAs as being a less viable solution to managing role stress when compared to counterparts at small firms. To summarize, results of this study suggest that local public accounting firms are less stressful than medium sized firms, which, are less stressful than Big 4 firms (Buchheit, Dalton, Harp, & Hollingsworth, 2016). 

CPAs who work in a flexible work arrangement have shown lower intent of turnover and higher job satisfaction than CPAs who work under a traditional arrangement. Professionals working under a flexible arrangement have shown lower levels of job burnout, typically measured by the dimensions of:  emotional exhaustion, reduced personal accomplishment, and depersonalization (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993). When compared against a control group of professionals working in a traditional work arrangement, employees who maintained a flexible working arrangement experienced improved job satisfaction as well as diminished job burnout and less role stress (Almer & Kaplan, 2002). 

Sweeney and Summers (2002) employ a longitudinal approach to examining the impact of busy season on job outcomes in public accounting firms. Role stressors and job burnout was assessed both prior to and subsequent to the busy season of a national accounting firm.  Although it is implied that public accountants may develop a high tolerance for role stress, results from this study provide evidence that job stressors introduced by the busy season caused burnout in sampled participants to rise to very high levels (Sweeney & Summers, 2002). Interestingly, the negative effects of job stressors and burnout can be successfully offset by living a healthy lifestyle (Jones III, Norman, & Wier, 2010). Such a lifestyle consists of regular exercise, a balanced diet, refraining from excessive alcohol and tobacco use, and proper sleep habits. 

Implications for public accounting firms

Firms should consider structuring job processes and organizational hierarchies in ways that reduce office-related stress. Ensuring that a proper number of staff are on hand to meet client demands is crucial. Prior to busy season, job analysis can be performed. This process consists of discussion with top performers about the way they complete tasks effectively and efficiently. Workflows of these superior firm performers can be analyzed and methods shared with other staff members to create firm efficiencies. During busy season, assignment of specific tasks within the firm should reflect adaptation of staff skills to their proficient areas. 

Firms can do their part in promoting employee health by offering health club memberships as part of their fringe benefit package, keeping break rooms stocked with healthy choices, or simply encouraging employees to take a walk while on their lunch break. Encouraging stretch breaks and walking outdoors helps break the monotony of the workday while providing vital stress relief throughout the day. A health-consciousness staff will likely be more productive, motivated, and result in fewer instances of absenteeism. Additionally, the firm can directly benefit from reduced group health costs and paid sick leave. 

It is imperative that open lines of communication are maintained at all times. Partners’ and managers’ ability to understand staff members and the ability of staff members to clearly understand firm management is crucial in accomplishing firm objectives. Participative management stresses the need for two-way communications, both upstream and downstream. Maintaining proper communication channels helps bind an organization together. A carefully constructed internal communications network can reduce employee stress by increasing transparency, promoting goal congruence, and building morale and trust.  Applications such as Skype and Padlet can be useful tools for backchannel communications and idea sharing on collaborative projects. 


Stress experienced by those in public accounting firms during its busy seasons is not something that is likely to be eliminated. However, measures can be taken by both management and employees to minimize the negative effects of stress on individual well-being. Future research should include empirical analysis exploring the effects of peak season burnout specifically within mid-sized firms or local accounting firms, subjects who are often overlooked in accounting behavior research. Furthermore, a deeper delve, perhaps a longitudinal study, into the relationship between healthy living as a coping mechanism for stress in public accounting could yield interesting results to both employees and firms alike.  Obtaining and retaining talent is a top challenge for many of today’s public accounting firms.  Success in the next decade is likely to hinge on firms developing innovative and effective methods of addressing work-life balance among accounting professionals. 

KyCPA Podcast

Dr. Parsley was a guest on Behind the Numbers and discussed the relationship of Leader-Member Exchange on role stress and burnout. You may listen or watch the interview by clicking below.


Almer, E. D. (2007, February). AICPA Work/Life and Women's Initiatives 2004 Research - A Decade of Changes in the Accounting Profession: Workforce Trends and Human Capital Practices. Issues in Accounting Education, 59-66.

Almer, E. D., & Kaplan, S. E. (2002). The Effects of Flexible Work Arrangements on Stressors, Burnout, and Behavioral Job Outcomes in Public Accounting. Behavioral Research in Accounting, 14, 1-34.

Boswell, W. R., Boudreau, J. W., & Tichy, J. (2005). The Relationship Between Employee Job Change and Job Satisfaction: The Honeymoon-Hangover Effect. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(5), 882-892.

Buchheit, S., Dalton, D. W., Harp, N. L., & Hollingsworth, C. W. (2016). A Contemporary Analysis of Accounting Professionals' Work-Life Balance. Accounting Horizons, 30(1), 41-62.

Cordes, C. L., & Dougherty, T. W. (1993). A Review and an Integration of Research and Job Burnout. Academy of Management Review, 621-656.

Jones III, A., Norman, C. S., & Wier, B. (2010). Healthy Lifestyle as a Coping Mechanism for Role Stress in Public Accounting. Behavioral Research in Accounting, 22, 21-41.

Sweeney, J. T., & Summers, S. L. (2002). The Effect of the Busy Season Workload on Public Accountants' Job Burnout. Behavioral Research in Accounting, 14, 223-245.


About the author: Dr. Sammie Parsley, CPA, CMA, CIA, CGMA, a tax manager with Carr, Riggs, and Ingram, CPAs. He holds a doctorate in accounting from the University of Missouri-Stl where his research focused on behavioral accounting.