Resilient accounting students suffer less burnout

You can teach students this critical life skill.
By Dawn Wotapka

Can building resilience keep students in accounting? Kenneth J. Smith, CPA, DBA, thinks so.

Smith, chair of the accounting and legal studies department at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md., is part of a team that published a study on resilience in Accounting Education in 2020.

The study gathered data from more than 443 students majoring in accounting at four U.S. universities. The researchers had students answer several questionnaires anonymously to assess their resilience, overall psychological health, levels of academic burnout, and plans to leave the accounting major. They performed a statistical analysis of the results and found that students with higher resilience were more likely to have better mental health and lower levels of burnout. Extrapolating from these results, the team hypothesized that more resilient students might be more likely to stay in accounting than less-resilient ones.

We spoke with Smith about his research and key findings.

First, define “resilience.”

Smith: Resilience is the ability to rebound under stress and adversity.

What got you interested in resilience as a coping strategy?

Smith: In the late 1980s I did research into work wellness programs, which ranged from informational sessions to full-blown wellness centers with medical staff on hand. Part of these programs was developing what we now call a “resilient workforce.”

Accounting has been considered a high-stress occupation. In accounting, there is increasing concern that stress is causing all these detrimental outcomes for the individuals and the employers for which they work, including mental and physical health issues, increased absenteeism and turnover, and decreased performance.

My co-investigators and I have done studies of actual auditors and what we find is that those with higher resilience levels are less likely to voluntarily leave their firms. They’re more satisfied in their positions, and they also engage in fewer questionable auditing practices.

What did you learn about resilience over the course of your study?

Smith: It’s advisable for administrators of accounting programs to consider some form of resilience training, whether it be at the university level through, say, support services, or down at the departmental level. This has been a neglected skill despite evidence that it has tangible benefits for students.

Should resilience be taught?

Smith: Absolutely, because everybody benefits, both on a professional and a personal level. Programs [that teach resilience] will likely retain more of their students, and will enhance the students’ health and well-being. When the students graduate they may be more able to meet the demands of their employers. Employers that teach resilience might be more likely to retain valued employees. It’s really a win-win.

There is a growing body of evidence that resilience can be taught, and as we noted in our above-referenced article, universities across the globe are coming to recognize the value of resilience training. I encourage readers interested in the workings of formal resilience programs to examine the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Resilience Program and PERMA Workshops program and Stanford University’s Resilience Project videos.

Not all resilience training needs to be formal, however. Faculty may be able to foster resilience in their students by simply actively listening to their concerns, offering encouragement and support, and by informing them of resources available on-campus to help them accomplish goals.

I am right now investigating at what level we can start to implement this in our university. My impetus is that there’s a high attrition rate among our accounting majors. I’m going to work with student support services to see what they have to offer and what they’re willing to do.

What advice would you give to a student who wants to feel more resilient?

Smith: I would suggest, at the very least, that you try to take time for yourself each day that might include quiet reflection or meditation. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep — that’s the problem for a lot of students. Even if it’s just 20 minutes, get a little exercise. Clear your head. Go to student support services and ask for time-management advice. These basic strategies are a good start.

Do you consider yourself a resilient person?

Smith: I do, but I’ve been through training. I wasn’t born that way — for sure. I actually try to do everything I just told you. I exercise regularly, I try to eat well, I get adequate sleep, and I try to meditate twice a day.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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