Last year, I had one of my coaching clients come to me and say, “I’m done. I don’t want to be an accountant anymore.” She wasn’t alone.
In 2021, an average of 3.98 million U.S. workers quit their jobs each month, smashing all records since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started keeping track. And while the BLS doesn’t publish data on accounting specifically, it’s telling that the quit rate for the category of “professional and business services” was noticeably higher than other domains.
Many accounting professionals have been (rightly) questioning the norms of our profession—the long hours, exhaustion, and poor mental health. When the opportunity presented itself, they quit. But people who switched jobs in 2021 aren’t necessarily any happier now and, in some cases, feel even worse than they did before. What happened?
I see it time and time again in my coaching practice: If you change your environment without addressing the underlying issues, the underlying issues follow you. Or, as the adage goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
So how do you fix your burnout in a way that’s healthy and sustainable? Let’s explore how to change jobs the right way. Whether you’re considering leaving a job or not, I hope it’ll help you too.
Resigned to this: How we got here
I don’t want to say I told you so, but I saw the great resignation coming. In October 2020, I wrote an article for the California Society of CPAs where I warned that, as accounting firms contracted in the wake of Covid—cutting salaries, laying people off, and freezing learning budgets—we would risk losing people. Firm leaders were acting out of fear, but those fears were misplaced. Instead of collapsing, we were more needed than ever.
Meanwhile, many accounting professionals felt a disconnect between the essential work they were doing and how they were being treated. Their firms might have been thriving, but as individuals, they were barely surviving. They were putting in more hours while also having to navigate the disruptions to their personal lives—managing childcare, worrying about elderly parents, or grappling with poor mental health. Their organizations didn’t hold them when they really needed to be held, so they looked for an escape.
Quitting can feel like it’ll solve all of your problems, but without deep introspection, it rarely does. Here’s what I recommend instead.
1. Stop, drop, and identify the discomfort
When you’re feeling unhappy at work, that’s a signal. I like to think of it as a smoke alarm going off. A smoke alarm can mean a lot of different things—maybe your house is on fire, or maybe you just burnt a piece of toast. Your job is to get curious about the feeling and identify where it’s coming from.
Take some time to consider what exactly is making you uncomfortable in your current job. (You might want to journal about it, if that’s your thing, or talk it over with a trusted friend.) Consider the following questions:
- What am I doing that energizes me?
- What am I doing that drains me?
- Am I engaging in any toxic behaviors, like people-pleasing, perfectionism, or controlling tendencies?
- What can I no longer tolerate?
- Why am I tolerating it? (Hint: What are you scared of?)
- What do I want to feel instead?
- Where do I want to take my career? My life?
- What experiences will help me to grow? Are they available in my current position?
- What support do I need?
- Who can I speak with in confidence about these things?
- Who has the authority to make the changes I need?
You might find that your discomfort is coming from something small and fixable. Or maybe there is a much larger issue at play—one that does warrant quitting your job. Either way, it’s important to take the time to slow down and figure out what’s really going on inside of you before you take any drastic action.
2. Choose something to run towards, instead of running away
Once you figure out what isn’t working, it’s time to determine what you actually want. If you run away from discomfort but never take the time to figure out what to run towards, you’ll never find the fulfillment you’re seeking.
One helpful framework you can use to help identify that “something” is from a book I love called The Big Leap. Author Gay Hendricks lays out four “zones” you can operate from at work: your zone of incompetence, your zone of competence, your zone of excellence, and your zone of genius.
Most accounting professionals get stuck in the zone of excellence. And this isn’t necessarily a bad place to be—you excel at your job, get paid well, and people respect your expertise. But at the same time, you can hear your inner voice saying, “I know there’s something more.” Your zone of genius, on the other hand, is the highest expression of yourself. It’s where you’re living your values and doing work that inspires you.
I once coached a compliance tax partner who was a quintessential example of someone operating in his zone of excellence. He excelled in his career and made good money but came to me feeling disenchanted. Through coaching, he came to the realization that it wasn’t that he didn’t like accounting, rather, he was inspired to make the practice of accounting better. He needed a new role that would meet him where he was.
So he made a big leap—he quit his job as a tax partner without knowing where he would work next. What he did know: He had a vision for the progressive firms of the future. This person wasn’t running away from what he didn’t like, rather, he was being pulled by a sense of purpose. It didn’t take him long to move into a new job where he is leading a CPA firm alliance and collaborating with members on how to improve their firms. (In fact, he’ll be speaking about this transition this summer at the AICPA EDGE conference: My Journey to Partner: Why I Left and What Could Have Been Done to Keep Me.)
If you’re feeling stuck in your current role, consider—what would it take for you to leave your zone of excellence and fully step into your zone of genius? Is there a cause you’re passionate about, a type of work that inspires you, or a long-held dream you’ve been too scared to try? The answers are inside of you. All you need to do is quiet the external noise and tune into the longings of your soul.
3. Ask for what you need to thrive
This next part might feel scariest—but it’s also the most crucial. Here’s the point where you need to talk to your employer about what you’ve been discovering.
This is where I notice the accounting professionals I work with struggle the most. They are scared to ask for what they need. Underneath the fear may be a limiting belief they will be perceived as “weak” or “unworthy” of having their needs met. My response is always: “Do you realize what it costs to replace you?” It’s in your firm’s best interest to keep you happy—this is even more true if you’re a senior-level person. You doing the work you love is more than altruistic; it results in you operating at your highest potential.
Still, it can be a nerve-wracking conversation, so do what you can to set yourself up for success. First, breathe. As Hendricks says in The Big Leap, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” While conversing with my colleague Jamie Greene on the topic of anxiety and mental health, I learned that breath calms one’s anxiety faster than a Xanax or a glass of wine. (Who said CPE can’t be fun?)
Next, you might want to send your boss a note explaining what you’ve been thinking about and asking to schedule some time to chat further. You might consider saying something like:
- I have noticed I no longer enjoy________.
- What I would like to do instead is ________.
- What do you need from my current role?
- What will the business need from my future performance?
- How might we align so that both of our needs are met?
In many cases, your boss will be amenable to the idea. Still, there are workplaces that will not be supportive of your growth, or that simply aren’t able to provide what you’re looking for. If you’ve asked for what you need and your workplace isn’t willing or able to explore it, don’t take it personally. Instead, see it as a gift that you are being rerouted to something even better. Because you are.
If you decide to leave, you can take what you’ve learned about yourself and bring it on the job hunt. Remember, you’re evaluating potential employers as much as they’re evaluating you. Make sure to communicate your needs and determine whether they’ll be able to meet them before you accept a new opportunity.
4. Look within before you leap
The pandemic put accounting professionals under unique new pressures—many of which haven’t gone away entirely. Understandably, the great resignation became the natural outpouring of their pent-up exhaustion and frustration with the profession. But those who didn’t take the time to reflect on what they needed to thrive may now feel regret.
Switching jobs doesn’t necessarily have to be a last resort. However, I do think it’s important to really understand what you need and how you might get it before you make any drastic life changes.
Having a deep understanding of your needs, values, and aspirations is key to finding work that fulfills you, whether that’s in your existing workplace or in a new opportunity. The important thing is to discover what’s going to make you thrive as a human being—and, crucially, find the soil that will nourish your growth. Only then will you find the job and life satisfaction you’ve been looking for.
Disclaimer: This is not to be taken as tax, legal, benefits, financial, or HR advice. Since rules and regulations change over time and can vary by location, consult a lawyer or HR expert for specific guidance.