Long hours dragging into the weekend and over public holidays, unpaid billable hours and constant pressure from clients are just some of the stressors accountants and bookkeepers have had to face as frontline operators for the government’s economic stimulus measures.
‘A hell of a ride’: The COVID-19 toll on the accounting profession
The professional accounting bodies are now increasingly worried about the mental and physical strain felt by accountants across the country as hundreds of thousands of businesses turn to the profession for advice amid the COVID-19 crisis.
The JobKeeper scheme, the centrepiece of the government’s stimulus package, has relied heavily on accountants in its rollout, with the profession putting in a monumental effort to ensure over 768,000 entities were enrolled by the first week of May, covering more than 5 million Australian workers.
The profession has also been tasked to assist with the cash-flow boost measure, which has now resulted in $7.5 billion in credits flowing out to eligible small and medium businesses.
Tax agents are also facing the pressure of helping with the supersized instant asset write-off and accelerated depreciation measures, and as a source of financial advice when it comes to the early access to superannuation measure.
A short time frame to absorb new tax legislation, drip-fed guidance from the ATO and intense pressure from clients have resulted in a potent mix of pressure and stress that has the profession creaking.
“There is a human toll to this — practitioners are working 12 to 14 hours a day,” the Institute of Public Accountants general manager of technical policy Tony Greco told Accountants Daily.
“They don’t want to let their clients down and they are putting their health aside for their clients. They are suffering a huge mental and physical toll.
“It’s a bit unfortunate that it has fallen on this small army to help with what the clients require, and they are absolutely feeling it.
“There is more certainty now, but it has been a hell of a ride to get to this point, and all that creates is tension, increased workload on the profession, and I don’t think that’s well understood by Treasury and how much pain and suffering and sheer hours are required to navigate clients through the maze.
“The ATO is aware of it — the human element is on their radar as well.”
The Tax Institute’s Professor Robert Deutsch believes practitioners will need to prioritise their health now as the government’s road to economic recovery will likely continue to hinge on the profession.
“There’s nothing worse than trying to handle this when you’re sick, so I do urge everyone to take a break every now and then,” Professor Deutsch said.
“Take a few deep breaths and come back to it because the next few months are going to be a testing time, as have the last few months, but I don’t think it’s going to get better quickly and we need practitioners out there who are healthy and able to help.”
Likewise, Tax & Super Australia senior tax counsel John Jeffreys has urged practitioners to manage their workload.
“I know it’s pretty tough for you at the moment. You’re getting asked all sorts of questions, you’re getting a lot of pressure from your clients,” Mr Jeffreys said.
“I encourage you in what you are doing, the service that you are providing to the Australian community is absolutely essential at this time and the stimulus package simply wouldn’t work without accountants and tax agents, so hang in there, do what you can do, but don’t work 24 hours a day — take a bit of time off and have a break.”
Billable work, but who pays?
Accountants are also facing an unenviable decision to charge their distressed clients during the crisis or hold off and absorb a hit to their revenue.
“The question is whether their clients will pay for all this work and will the client be around to pay the bill because there’s no guarantee in this environment and some of those clients will fall over,” Mr Greco said.
For North Sydney-based accounting firm Prime Partners, it is now banking that its decision to go pro bono or charge less will pay off in the long run.
“It’s definitely impacted us. We believe it will be short term, but it’s one of those things where we made a decision to put our clients ahead of revenue; at a partner level, we had a discussion about it and said a lot of people are going to be hurting through this period, let’s just be the good guys,” Prime Partners director George Morice said.
“It’s not sustainable long term, but it’s not a long-term thing we’re doing here. Everybody’s in pain, so we’ve put extra effort to charge less for this period, but I think from a sustainable point of view, you do that you get a lot more client loyalty.
“We’re hoping in the long run that our clients value that we’ve been making a conscious effort not to charge for the majority of this work, and hopefully, over the next year or two, they really appreciate that and recommend us across to other businesses.”
With accountants not immune to a recession, the government has now been urged to consider a voucher scheme for cash-strapped businesses to use with an accountant to access professional advice.
“Such schemes will not only help ensure businesses can access professional information and support through the government’s packages, but will [also] help the integrity of the operation of those support packages,” said shadow minister for small business Brendan O’Connor.
“Additionally, the accounting profession itself has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this proposal has the additional benefit of being a form of industry support with many positive spillover effects.”
CPA Australia’s Paul Drum believes a government-backed voucher is a no-brainer in the current economic environment.
“One shouldn’t assume that the various governments’ fiscal stimulus measures equate to rivers of gold for professional services firms,” Mr Drum told Accountants Daily.
“When it comes to small businesses, priorities such as keeping the lights on, the doors open and stock on the shelves are of much higher priority than paying for professional advice.
“We are not talking about unbillable hours — we are talking about billable hours for which the adviser may not be paid.
“A government-backed voucher or grant to such businesses would encourage them to access the professional advice they need at this very critical time. Such advice would not only be beneficial to these businesses, but also indirectly to their employees and the broader economy.”