The Burnout of Balancing the Books

Sharron Cirillo, a public accountant in Middletown, Delaware, talks about the rewards and challenges of work in America.

Sharron Cirillo  (Rebecca Clarke )

One large challenge nonprofit startups and small businesses face is maintaining their finances. Tax season is generally considered to be awful for most Americans, but keeping up with bookkeeping, filings, and shifting regulations for a business is a year-round project.

Sharron Cirillo founded her accounting firm about a decade ago, and works primarily with small businesses and nonprofit organizations. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Cirillo about how she started her public-accounting business, the shortage of workers in her field, and the strain between work and family life. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you get into accounting?

Sharron Cirillo: I had worked for a dentist, and I didn’t really have any training in the dental field. The dentist had a history of hiring people off the street to work in his office, and so you got to do all kinds of strange and unusual jobs. Through that I got a lot of exposure to his books and his billing, and he had about 7,000 family accounts, and because of the complexity of it he hadn’t billed them in quite a while, and it was causing some cash-flow problems. I was able to go through and reconcile them all, and of course then send the bills and solve the cash-flow problem, and really found that I liked figuring it out. I liked the fact that I could do this solitary task sometimes, and make a big difference in somebody’s life.

You know, you could be a wonderful dentist, but not be successful if you don’t have a backend that functions appropriately and generates the revenues that you need. I worked for a couple other firms after I left that position to get a feel for what it was like, and I went back to school when my daughter was eight days old to get my public accounting license and start my career. The inspiration was really the small-business owner, and how difficult it is to run a business. I started my own firm about 11 years ago.

Green: Did you always see yourself becoming an accountant?

Cirillo: I would say math was always easy for me, but it wasn’t something that intrigued me. It just seemed simple: You fill out the algebra, you do the assignments, and then you move on. Initially, I really thought that I would want to be an attorney, but I didn’t have super thick skin as a teenager so that wasn’t going to work. I really liked the thought process behind chemistry, but the thought of being isolated in a lab all day didn’t sound like a lot of fun. I was glad that I fell into this, and it worked out.

Green: What is an average day or week like for you?

Cirillo: We do a lot of work for nonprofits, and outsource accounting support for them. For example, we cut the checks, do the payroll taxes, income taxes, and bookkeeping.  [Nonprofits are] a little bit more fun to work with sometimes because they appreciate how difficult the work is. As far as a typical week goes, it is kind of a roller coaster each week. It depends on whether there's a tax-filing deadline that week, and if so for what type of client. For example, I could be hounding clients to get the rest of their information in, speaking in front of a commission about some [nonprofit industry] recommendations, or meeting with a new client who thinks that they have discovered a fraud and needs us to investigate and recover those funds.

Cirillo: Well, it started as a train wreck. I opened up an office in Newark, which is about 30 minutes from my house, at the urging of someone who wanted to be a partner, and then at the last minute he backed out. I said, “Well, I’ll still go forward,” and at that point my son was a few months old, and things seemed somewhat normal building the practice. Then, my youngest was diagnosed with autism, and so we spent a lot of time taking him back and forth to therapy.

It was a setback financially, and also time-wise. At that point I had employees and staff, and was trying to figure out what to do. I really didn’t want to stop practicing because I liked it, but I needed to make sure that my son had the care that he needed. After having a location outside my house, I had to move my business back to my house, even with the employees. That was not the most fun time I ever had. When he got his treatment at school, eventually we were able to move back out and re-normalize things, but I think it set us back definitely a couple years.

When I was going to school, and my kids were young, I was working for another firm. I found that they were really not interested in being flexible, nor concerned with the challenges that I had in juggling all these things. That framed my perspective, and how I treat my staff now. I really think it’s important for them to have balance and, you know, be there for the pumpkin-patch day, and all of those things that people do to make the nice memories. [Owning a business] feels like you’re always letting somebody down, or there’s something else you should be doing.  It’s conflicting, but ultimately it’s flexible too.

Green: What is one surprising thing about your job as an accountant?

Cirillo: Even though you need an understanding of math, I don’t do a lot of math in my head. I really rely on spreadsheets and calculators. It’s also surprising that a lot of my work involves dealing with clients, and teaching them—whether it’s explaining their tax return, or what things they need to change in their business process. I spend probably 50 percent of my day talking to clients, and the other 50 percent doing what I would consider the behind-the-scenes work. It’s less quiet in the office than you would expect.

Green: The stereotype about accounting is that it’s boring, or isolating. What do you think about those perceptions of your profession?

Cirillo: I think that the perception and reality are really a paradox because the perception is that it’s all rules, regulations, and stringent requirements. We also spend a lot of time talking about the real world, so there’s not so much black and white. There’s a tremendous amount of gray, and so it’s our job to use that gray to our client’s advantage financially, or just to make their life easier in the way that we process things.

Cirillo:  There is more regulation all the time. The standards will switch back and forth as the years go by as different people are in power at the AICPA and other standard-setting organizations. One of the real problems that we have right now is a talent shortage. A lot of big firms hire people right out of college, and they pay them very well, but then they work them to death, to the point where they don’t want to be in public accounting anymore, and they think that that’s what public accounting is.

As a smaller firm, we really struggle to attract good talent, and to fill the talent gap that we have. I’m somewhat young now. I’m going to be 40 years old in a couple weeks, but I’m not sure who’s going to come up behind us to fill the gap. Kids don’t seem to graduate with accounting degrees at the same rate that they once did. Either that, or they’re all going to industry, so we really have a problem because so many practitioners are on the verge of retirement.

Green: You mentioned burnout, which affects a lot of other professions as well. If you had to describe what it’s like to work in America, would burnout be a significant part of your equation?

Cirillo: Well, work is different for different types of people certainly. Small business owners, which we deal with a lot, certainly work a whole lot more than employees do typically. Being self-employed is more than a 9-to-5 typically, and honestly accounting as a field is too. It’s harder to keep up now than used to be. If you want to think about the 1950s and 1960s, all the moms stayed home and one person had to worry about going to work, which left the other person to take care all the house things. We’ve progressed to the point where both parents can share in those duties, but that means that in a lot of families both people are also working. So, that coordination, and a lack of support at home to make sure that there’s milk in the fridge and the mortgage got paid this month, make it stressful.

Then, the expectations of being available to your clients and being available in an emergency make it stressful. It’s another set of responsibilities on the work side, and that’s if you’re not self-employed. When you run a business, you’re responsible for making sure that your employees have jobs to come back to. A lot of people are burned out with 24/7 cell phones, and things like that. In our field especially, when you talk about having 17 weeks to generate 40, 50, or 60 percent of your annual revenue that’s stressful, and then you add the penalties, and fines, interest, if something isn’t prepared correctly.

Green: What motivates you beyond those challenges?

Cirillo: The main motivation for me is providing value; that’s innately rewarding. When you’re helping organizations achieve their goal, whether you’re helping a dentist collect the money that’s due to him or a dance school meet its obligations and navigate through a transition, you really are helping someone understand thousands and thousands of pages of regulations.

I can also recognize the challenges of managing family and work life, and I can provide for my staff a really flexible environment that’s not a pressure cooker like so many of the other firms. I can use the responsibility of running a small business to make it a place that provides things for the staff, and really for myself too, so that we can balance our family and our work.

Green: Would you consider accounting a diverse field?

Cirillo: I think it depends on where you are. In the more urban centers, my impression is that you have firms that are more ethnically clustered. We recently hired a new staff member who felt that his demographic wasn’t well represented with good accountants. One of his questions in his interview was, “would you be comfortable serving people from my background?” People who have fewer resources many times do get lesser services.

From a firm perspective, I think it can be an intimidating field if you come from a more challenged background. If you have the same qualifications, and are as qualified as the next candidate then that shouldn’t be held against you because our kids don’t go to the same school, or we don’t attend the same types of events. [Another] one of the things that are important to me is providing meaningful work to people that have disabilities. We are also careful about how we choose our clients. We don’t screen them based on their, say, net worth, or how much their business does. It’s really on more reasonable measures like, are our services a good fit for what they need? Can they afford our services is certainly one of those questions, but we’ve terminated clients that we are very profitable on because it’s not a good match for our services.

Green: How do you think that your work is tied into your identity?

Cirillo: I think the measure of a person is how much good can they do, and so I think that’s one of the main reasons that I continue to work crazy hours, and do things that take away from personal time. I think the amount of value that I can provide to other people helps me to determine, or to measure my own value. In that way, I think that my work and identity are unable to be separated.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with an investment banker, a lawyer, and a convenience-store owner.