SYNOPSIS

In recent years, work-life balance surpassed compensation as the most important job satisfaction factor among AICPA members (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants [AICPA] 2004). Despite the continued importance of this issue in the accounting profession (AICPA 2011), prior research has not examined work-life balance perceptions across different segments of the profession. We survey 1,063 practicing CPAs in order to assess the comparative work-life balance perceptions across (1) Big 4 versus smaller public accounting firms, (2) audit versus tax functions, and (3) public accounting versus industry work contexts. Consistent with predictions based on institutional logics theory, we find that work-family conflict and job burnout perceptions (our proxies for work-life balance) are highest in the Big 4. We are the first study to measure both support-for and viability-of traditional alternative work arrangements (AWAs), and we report an important distinction between these two constructs. Specifically, while CPAs across all public accounting firms (i.e., Big 4, national, regional, and local firms) report similar levels of organizational support-for AWAs, Big 4 professionals report significantly lower perceived viability-of AWAs (i.e., the ability to use AWAs and remain effective at one's job) compared to accounting professionals at smaller public accounting firms. Further, we find no differences between audit and tax professionals' perceptions across any of our work-life balance measures. We also document nuanced differences regarding work-life balance perceptions in public accounting versus industry. For example, contrary to conventional wisdom, work-life balance is not uniformly “better” in industry (e.g., burnout is actually lower in smaller public accounting firms compared to industry). Finally, we use open-ended responses from a follow-up survey to provide several recommendations for firms to improve their work-life balance efforts.

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