A recent rise in viral illnesses affecting children has had working parents in a bind, including accountants working to meet government and client deadlines.
In October 2022, a combination of a severe infant respiratory virus and rising seasonal flu and COVID-19 cases contributed to a three-year high of people missing work. Some 104,000 Americans missed work due to lack of child care in that month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than double the 46,000 who missed work for the same reason in October 2021.
In the past three years, parents have also become more aware of the risk that exposure to illness poses, said Mike Monahan, a principal at Chicago-based Grant Thornton who leads strategic client engagements. A parent might not want an elderly relative, for example, taking care of their sick child, since an older family member may have a weaker immune system. All that, and a shortage of child care workers, increases pressures on parents and other working caregivers.
Also, sick kids aren't the only caregiving responsibilities keeping accountants out of the office or away from their computers.
"We're seeing more and more people as caregivers for aging parents," said Patrick Bowes, managing director of human resources at professional services and accounting firm CLA. "And we're seeing people as caregivers for children, sometimes adult children with special needs."
When professionals struggle to balance caregiving responsibilities with work duties, accounting firm leaders say a supportive company culture and individual actions can help employees meet professional and personal obligations.
Create a supportive culture
Many public accounting firms offer benefits aimed at helping employees juggle caregiving pressures and work: flexible work schedules, paid-time-off policies, short-term disability benefits, flexible work schedules, and more.
But a supportive culture is even more important, Monahan said. Firm leaders work with supervisors and managers to ensure everybody understands that employees now more often face situations that will require them to work from home to care for loved ones or, sometimes, be unavailable while taking on caregiving responsibilities.
"It's really a culture of a community where we all understand these things happen," he said. "And we all understand that because these things happen, we need to be there for one another when they happen."
CLA encourages a similarly supportive team culture. That means team members step in when a co-worker can't meet work commitments due to family illness.
"We see teams of people coming together, in essence putting their arms around their colleague when they're in a time of need and saying, 'We've got your back. We've got you covered,'" Bowes said. "We all have this understanding that 'Today, I get to be the one that jumps in to help a colleague so they can be with a loved one in a time of need. Tomorrow, maybe I'll be on the other side of that.'"
Prepare to respond
When a critical team member is unavailable, the rest of the team has to be ready to fill in, said Katie Gilden, COO at Miami-based Fiske & Company, which employs more than 20 professionals.
"One person can't be the only person who is capable of any task," Gilden said. To ensure that one person's absence doesn't leave a team in a bind, firms can cross-train staff, as Fiske & Company does. "We make sure we have multiple team members who can pitch in on a given task when necessary," she said.
That also means ensuring that client decision-makers are familiar with more than one member of an engagement team.
At Fiske & Company, a dedicated director of client services is always available to clients if someone on the client team is unavailable, Gilden said. Additionally, the firm tries to make sure that clients are aware of which staff members are working on a given project and that all team members are kept informed about the work.
A key team member being out may also represent an opportunity for other team members, Bowes said. "A lot of times it could become a stretch kind of assignment for somebody, and they get to experience a lot of personal and professional growth through that," he said.
How professionals can balance demands
In addition to relying on colleagues to share the load, accounting professionals can also find other ways to meet both obligations and family needs.
For example, Monahan suggested scheduling work activities, such as calls and meetings, around a child or family member's needs when possible, and communicating to colleagues when you're not available.
That could mean telling colleagues "between 11 and 12, I have to make sure [my child] gets their [medicine]," he said. Or it might be as simple as telling people you'll be unavailable at certain times due to caregiving obligations.
He said he sets personal alarms during the workday as a reminder to help him stay on track with both work and personal tasks.
Some professionals shift their work to hours when they're more available, such as the evening when a partner might be able to help out with child care.
At Gilden's firm it's not a big deal if staff, say, need to take time away to bring children to doctor appointments. "When your child is sleeping or back home comfortably resting, then you can always get back 'on' from home at that time," she said.
If the employee ends up working less than eight hours in a workday, they have the choice to make it up at other times in the week, or to take paid time off. Fiske & Company offers employees 17 to 27 business days of PTO annually, depending on their tenure with the firm.
To make that work, both the firm and employees have to be committed to flexibility, she said.
It also helps, Gilden added, to avoid last-minute work when possible. She suggested professionals should build in extra time to get work done when setting expectations with clients and colleagues. That ensures there's enough time to deliver the work when personal obligations could interfere.
— Mark Tosczak is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.