Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Balanced Life in a Big 4 / Auditing Firm – Is it Possible?



I got a comment from one of my previous posts on Skills You Need When Working for the Big 4. It’s all about sacrificing some (okay, most) things in life just to make it as a CA or an auditor. The list seems simple enough – watch TV, play computer, clean the house – all normal things. What bothered me is that the commenter thinks he needs to give these up to be a CA and an auditor. Is this what it takes to succeed in the field of auditing?

I’ve often heard this before (and I’ve often said it before also) that working for a Big 4 or for an auditing firm (for that matter) may mean a not-so-balanced life.

But then again, really, what is a balanced life? To the one who commented, I can see it is experiencing the simple joys in life. What about to those that are in audit (or were in audit), what is a balanced life? Is it being able to leave your job and go home at exactly 5 p.m. every day and not work during the week-ends? Is it being able to go and watch your favorite movie whenever you want to (and not when you can)? Is it being able to go to all the parties and social gatherings and all those cool vacation places every year? Or is it just being able to leave your job and go and watch your daughter’s school play or organize and go to your son’s birthday party or be with your parents and siblings?

So what is really a balanced life? I’ve heard this question a lot even up to now but I still don’t have a clear answer nor do I have a clear definition of a “balanced life”.

When I was a junior in the 90’s, I have a manager who was already 8 years in the firm. He wasn’t just working in the firm; his whole life is his work in the firm. I asked him about his life and he told me that he’s contented. All he asked was that he’ll be able to go home to celebrate his or a family member’s birthday, anniversary and holiday. Pretty simple huh? Yet for him that is a balanced life.

Or let’s take for example some of my (previous) juniors. They work their @ss off, especially during the busy season. Even going to the extent of renting out a unit nearer to their clients’ offices (yes, they were that ‘devoted’ to the firm). But they also know how to party, to go out during week-ends and when busy season is over, man, they do know how to take a vacation (other local places, other countries, different one every year, etc.). And I never hear them complain that they don’t have a balanced life.

Or what about my previous boss? He’s a busy-body during the weekdays but he has a ‘policy’ that he will go home at exactly 10 p.m. every day (no matter if it’s busy season or not) and that, as much as possible, he will not go to the office during week-ends. He also takes his vacation time very (very!) seriously (we’re not allowed to call him even during emergencies). And yes, he is happy with his life.


So again (for the last time!), what makes a balanced life, especially when you’re working for the Big 4? I’d say it’s simple. A balanced life is relative. What may be balanced for one may not be balanced for another. Only the individual can tell if his life is balanced or not.

Knowing what you want and going for it, but at the same, knowing how to compromise when called upon to do so is also another way to look at a balanced life. It is knowing when you will do something that you will really want to do and when you will have to forego something because duty calls (and there is no way you can do both at the same time).

Meaning, when you have free time (read: not a busy season), you enjoy yourselves, go home early, stay home during week-ends, go to parties, vacations, etc. But when the busy season arrives, you also know how to work your butt off to finish everything on time. It’s a compromise – this balanced life. Don’t you think so?

5 comments:

  1. he will go home at exactly 10 p.m. every day (no matter if it’s busy season or not) and that, as much as possible, he will not go to the office during week-ends

    The above is a really, really terrible example of "balanced".

    Interestingly though, the concept of "work-life balance" is on its way out, to be replaced by "work-life flexibility". i.e. "Sure, we'll let you leave at 5 today for that important doctor's appointment....but you still have to get the same amount of work done, so come in at 7am tomorrow and don't leave until 11pm".

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  2. Hi Anonymous, the above may be a terrible example but for my boss, it's already good enough for him. And since he's already a partner, I'd say it worked for him.

    Work-life flexibility - good concept. Might be a good topic for the next blog. Thanks :).

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  3. Hi emievil,

    It is a given that "work-life balance" has a different meaning to different people. However, it is also clear that, in general, the term itself is highly misleading. “Work-life balance” implies that there is some sort of a balance between work and life. Being able to leave work every day at 10pm sharp or not receiving calls while on a vacation does not really reflect this.

    One of your arguments is that to some people their work is their life. Well for those people (who I think are not the norm by the way) the notion of “work-life balance” does not apply as to them there is very little difference, if any, between the two. These people, as I like to say, live to work. As this notion does not apply to them, they should not be included in the discussion. The discussion should center on people who, as I like to say, work to live and who view work as a PART of their life.

    Now since you ask what work-life balance is and since we are accountants and like to use numbers, I will provide a rough guideline using quantitative factors. Let us begin with a universally-accepted view that for majority of people, getting less than six hours of sleep is not healthy. So, if you take away six from the day, you are left with 18 hours. To have SOME semblance of balance between life and work I believe that not more than two thirds of the weekdays and one third of weekends should be spent on work. Therefore, work should not take up more than 12 hours per day on weekdays and no more than 6 hours per day on weekends. Since travelling to and from work is related to work and takes time away from other commitments it should be included in the analysis. I will say that on average a person spends 1 ½ hours to get to and from work. That means that a person should not be working for more than 10 ½ hours on weekdays and 4 ½ hours on weekends. When you add these numbers up and round you have a working week of 62 hours.

    Now my analysis may not be the most accurate one, so let us have a leeway of plus or minus 5 hours. Even with that leeway the working week would not exceed 67 hours. Now, I think you would be hard-pressed to find people who actually believe that you can have a balance in life when working over 70% of the time you are awake. People who do believe that either: a) Value work so much that it becomes an integral/predominant part of their life or b) are deluding themselves to make themselves feel better. As I previously stated, people who fit into the former category really should not be taken into account as to them the whole work-life balance does not really represent anything. So there you have it. That is what work-life balance would be. Considering that during the busy-season especially you work way longer than 67 hours a week, the fact is that work-life balance does not actually exist. It may exist during the summer when there is less work but for four months of the year (and likely longer) it simply does not.

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  4. Thanks Anonymous for your inputs. I'm not going to argue over what you said.

    As I said, work-life balance is a personal choice. If my former boss says his working hours (using your calculation, he is only working 60 hours a week, by the way, 8 am to 10 pm weekdays only, take out one or two hours for lunch and dinner will just make it 60 hours) give him a work-life balance that is good enough for him, I don't think I can tell him it's not the norm because that is what really works for him. We may agree or disagree with him but as long as he is satisfied with it, then that is a balanced life for him.

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