Successfully performing the great American juggling act

By Amy L. Welch, APR, Oklahoma Society of CPAs Director of Communications

Since the term "work-life balance" was first used in the 1970s, studies have surfaced en masse showing the links between work-related stress, home-related stress, and overall employee health. To provide research, information, and education, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH created a WorkLife Initiative and recently released a document about the project that states there are five trends that underscore the need for a new approach to employee health:

  1. Health care costs are rising faster than profits or wages;
  2. Corporate mergers, restructuring, and job insecurity are leading to increased working hours and additional job responsibilities;
  3. Rates of chronic disease are high and treatment is costly, which emphasize the need for prevention and management programs;
  4. The distinction between injury or illness from work or off-work is eroding; and
  5. Work is a key factor in determining a person's health. Up to 70 percent of health issues can be addressed in workplace programs.

These trends and efforts to create a kinder workplace culture have especially become significant in the accounting field where organizations are involved in unspoken staffing wars, especially when it comes to the über-qualified CPA.

"I believe work environments have changed dramatically over the years to embrace the work-life balance concept," said Christy Sughru, CPA, who works with Peters & Chandler in Oklahoma City. "I believe overall these accommodations have proven effective. Firms are able to be more productive overall in total quality and quantity of their projects than in times past when work was only done from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at a primary office location."

Sughru and her husband of seven years have a one-year-old daughter, Sophia, and make outdoor activities a priority in their family.

"We love the outdoors and plan at least two vacations a year, along with many long weekends doing what we love," she said. "I believe we need to stay active to stay young and be happy. Work hard and play hard is a wonderful motto."

Steven Phelan, CPA, a tax manager with Wedel Rahill & Associates, CPAs, PLC in Oklahoma City, said the change could also be due to another unspecified trend.

"Age has played a big part in the work-life balance shift. Many of the CPAs entering the workforce now are younger and more family-minded," he explained. "They are aware of what needs to be done at work and home. Schedules are worked so that as much as possible can be accomplished in both places."

Phelan serves on the OSCPA's Technology Committee. He and his wife, Tawni, CPE director for the OSCPA, have a two-year-old, Cori.

"We are a very in-tune family," Phelan said. "We enjoy spending our evenings together, whether it's watching TV, reading books, playing games or just plain stuff."

Being in-tune is something Phelan says is just as important at work.

"In our firm, we are very much a family and we tilt each other up," he explained. "We all have primary duties and secondary duties, which are fellow employees' primary duties. That said, it is usually pretty seamless when a person needs to be gone for vacation, family emergencies or needs to only focus on a specific task for a client.

"This is our livelihood, but not our life."

According to Christy Ritchie, CPA, a small business accounting manager with Hyde & Company CPAs in Oklahoma City, a company that allows its employees to work and play hard is a company that will see success.

"If employers want to keep their best employees, they must recognize the value of helping them balance both aspects of their lives. It creates happier employees and well-rounded people."

Ritchie said she, her husband and their six-year-old daughter, Morgan, enjoy season football tickets for Oklahoma State University. She added that her career is rewarding in other ways that allow her to make up for some long hours.

"Being a CPA has provided a good salary, which allows me to do special things with my daughter during busy season, like going for pizza at Chuck E. Cheese or going to the mall," she said, adding that her employer encouraged her to also get involved with the OSCPA. "She tries to make sure we have the tools we need to succeed in our profession."

Jimmy J. Williams, CPA, PFS, BVAL, the managing partner of Jimmy J. Williams & Co., P.C. in McAlester, OK, is another employer who recognizes the need for work-life stability, not only for himself, but also for his staff. Williams, who serves on numerous OSCPA committees and as AICPA Council, and his wife of 21 years, Dena, have two daughters, Alexandria and Gabrielle.

"As the only shareholder of the firm and a parent of young children, I provide my assistant with my children's activity calendar to place the appointments on my calendar. Then, we explain to our clients that appointments will be provided around those priorities," Williams said. "The second strategy is available to all team members. We are strategically placed in size and scheduling of client projects to provide ultimate flexibility for team members to have a family life as well as a challenging career. Each team member has the opportunity to utilize a flex-time arrangement should they require time off unexpectedly or during business hours. Team members can work before or after hours to complete projects."

As a staff accountant for Wilsey Meyer Eatmon Tate PLLC in Oklahoma City, Patrick McFeeters, CPA, agreed with Williams' assessment of the importance of flex-time.

The father of two daughters said, "I think work environments have become more laid back and flexible, which enables professionals to match their work-life balance to the time they have available. Most of the places I have worked have been very accommodating in that if an employee is capable of getting his or her work done efficiently, then the hours of the day the work gets done — within limits — aren't as important as the quality of the work."

Ted Blodgett, CPA, J.D., CVA, a tax and business valuation partner with Gray Blodgett & Company PLLC in Norman, OK, said his firm also offers work flexibility.

"There is overtime, but it is flexible for when it is worked," he said.

Blodgett said he and his wife of 14 years, Lisa, stay busy with their 13-year-old son's football and basketball schedules, as well as church activities. Blodgett also chairs the OSCPA's Business Valuation/Forensic & Litigation Support Committee and serves as Board Liaison to the Small Firm Practitioners Committee. The family, however, still finds time to play hard.

"We take at least one family vacation to go scuba diving each year," Blodgett said. "We try to also go skiing in February after my son's basketball season and before the really busy season kicks in."

OSCPA President-Elect Jeff Frable, CPA, a partner with Curzon Cumbey & Kunkel, PLLC in Tulsa, OK, also volunteers for numerous committees and projects for the OSCPA and the AICPA, as well as the Rotary Club of Bixby (Bixby, OK), and the Tulsa Route 66 Marathon. He and his wife of 16 years, Sherry, a teacher, have three children, ages 12, 10 and eight, and Frable was quick to point out his extracurricular activities included "watching and carting around the kids to whatever activities they might be involved in."

Frable said work-life balance should be a firm-wide focus and should begin with year-round planning.

"We strive as much as possible to not have a busy season," he explained. "If we get caught in the trap of the typical CPA tax season, we become distracted and our clients are the ones who suffer. We strive to be proactive to the point that the tax return is simply a reporting mechanism."

Frable said his firm places priority on people, because of the value those people bring to the firm.

"We have to realize that people have needs. When those needs are met, they are happier and more productive," he said. "In this day, quality teammates are hard to find. When we find a person with upstanding character and that person becomes a quality teammate, we do everything we can to make sure that person is satisfied with his or her position… Satisfied teammates are happy teammates and those teammates produce."

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