The Truth About Work-Life Balance at a Big Four

Being a part of the Kelley community, I often run into the question of how does one genuinely balance work and life when working at a large company? I usually get the same kind of answers, like “go do yoga” or just “prioritize your health.” Although true statements, the answers are not usually beneficial or detailed with the true experiences employees face in the corporate world. Getting somewhat annoyed at the tiny answers I was being given to a big question, I decided that I wanted to search for my own answers. I reached out to four women Kelley graduates, each one currently working at a different Big Four firm: EY, PwC, Deloitte, and KPMG. Each person was eager and excited to give me some insight on the true story behind work-life balance.

When did you graduate from Kelley and what did you study?

EY: I graduated in Spring of 2015 with a degree in Finance and a minor in History.

PwC: May 2015 - majored in accounting and minored in political science.

Deloitte: 2015. Supply Chain Management and Business Analytics.

KPMG: I graduated in 2015 and studied Accounting and Finance.

What company do you currently work for? How long have you been working for this company and what is your position?

EY: I currently work at EY in Chicago. I interned at EY and have worked here for the last 3 years.

PwC: PwC. 3 years - Senior Assurance Associate.

Deloitte: Deloitte Consulting LLC. 3 years. Consultant.

KPMG: I work for KPMG's Chicago office. I've been working here for 3 years, and I'm a senior associate in their audit practice.

On average, how many hours do you work each week?

EY: It can vary but 50-55 is average.

PwC: Depends on the time of year. Busy season is typically 70-80 hours a week, quarterly reviews are 45-50 hours a week and the majority of the rest of the year is 40-45 hours a week.

Deloitte: 55 on average but this varies a lot depending on how my project is going. I've had as heavy as 75 hours and as low as 35.

KPMG: It varies throughout the year. During our "busy season" (generally January to March) I'll work anywhere from 50-70 hours. During the summer, I'm usually able to work a regular 40 hour week.

What does work-life balance mean to you? Are you able to achieve this at your current job?

EY: To me, work-life balance means working with a team that supports me in doing what I need to do – working out on the road, doing laundry when I’m home, eating healthy, etc. I currently work with a team that helps me achieve my work-life balance goals but that hasn’t always been the case. I think it’s important to prove yourself with your team and show that you can get your work done, even if you leave early to go to that 5:30 cycling class. Trust is earned.

PwC: Work-life balance to me is having the time and flexibility to do the things I love outside of work. I would say I'm able to achieve this the majority of the time at my current job. We are given a decent amount of vacation days a year and are highly encouraged to use all the days we are given. PwC is also supportive of allowing employees to get involved in recruiting, volunteering, intramural sports, etc. If you speak up about what is most important to you, teams are typically very accommodating (within reason) as it is in their best interest to keep you happy.

Deloitte: To me, work-life balance means that I feel emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy at work and outside of work. This means having time to go to the gym regularly, getting to hang out with friends and family, and taking time for myself, while also performing well at work. Yes, I have been able to achieve this at my current job but due to the culture of consulting, which is very project-dependent. I was staffed for nine months at a horrible project location with poor leaders and had very little work-life balance then. Since you are constantly changing projects and working with different leaders, achieving work-life balance is sadly always variable. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you really don't.

KPMG: Work-life balance means being able to separate my work-life from my life outside of work. For a good portion of the year, especially in summertime, this is certainly possible in my current role. During busy season, it can be a lot more challenging because there is an expectation that work is your main focus, and work does take over a little bit in that sense. It is a very challenging balance to find, and I'm far from having it fully figured out, but I do think it's possible if you take advantage of the flexibility that is offered throughout the year outside of busy season! Another way that I try to find this balance is by not making myself available at all hours of the day. I try to avoid responding to emails after I leave work for the day so that I don't set the expectation that I'm available 24/7. I have definitely found that my managers respect and encourage setting this boundary!

There are many articles that are written about work-life balance that encourage setting strict work hours or carving out time for friends and family. What happens when your work schedule doesn’t allow you to do these things?

EY: It’s really easy to drift away from family and friends when you’re on the road so frequently. Taking advantage of alternative travel can help you keep in touch with friends who live far away – which is a plus.

PwC: For Big 4 auditing, the hardest time to obtain work-life balance is obviously during busy season. However, you go into public accounting being aware of that and learn to plan your personal life around busy season. You typically aren't allowed to take vacation during January or February, but most people plan a big vacation after filing date and are provided flexibility throughout the rest of the year.

Deloitte: If you are on a team where your leaders really don't care about your work-life balance, it gets hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My suggestion is to still force yourself to go to the gym or disconnect from work even if you're exhausted at the end of the work day. Spending just 30 minutes working out can really change your mental health. Another way to achieve this is to have open and honest conversations with your team leads about your mental state. Sometimes you can negotiate better working or travel hours. Also, take your PTO!!! I know that I am guilty of not taking my PTO for fear of hurting my utilization but at the end of the day, I don't want to burn myself out. It is important to remember that at the end of the day, life isn't about working until you die.

KPMG: This is a tough question, because there truly are times when the demands of work make it feel impossible to spend time with the people I care about. I think you really have to speak up when there are important events you want to attend (I was the maid of honor in my best friend's wedding in the middle of busy season - it is possible!) and make sure to set boundaries and stick to them.

 What do you want Kelley graduates that are entering a Big Four company to know about work-life balance? What is something you wish someone had told you?

EY: Work hard to earn trust. Communicate what you need early. Look to the tone leadership is setting about work-life balance.

PwC: I want graduates entering a Big 4 company to realize that work-life balance is doable, but flexibility is also a privilege and something that is earned. New associates need to earn the trust of their seniors and managers to get the perks of working from home, utilizing Flex Fridays, etc. As you start to earn the trust of your team and get promoted, you are given a lot more opportunities to obtain work-life balance.

Deloitte: It comes and it goes. Deloitte does a great job from a C-suite level to encourage taking time for yourself, but you don't always see that executed at a project level. If you choose to enter consulting at Deloitte, just be realistic with yourself that sometimes you might travel a lot to a small middle-of-nowhere town and it will suck. However, other times you'll get staffed on projects that let you leave at 5pm. There will be times when you have a bad work-life balance, but during the times where it's good, set a healthy routine for yourself and recognize what helps you de-stress and keeps you healthy. You have to identify for yourself what it means to have work-life balance because it really is different for everyone.

KPMG: I wish someone had told me that it's OK to speak up when you are feeling overwhelmed, or if you feel like work is starting to take over your life. If you don't speak up, no one will know that you need help!

 What does your company do to promote a divide between working life and personal life?

EY: I think our leadership does a good job setting the right tone. If they’re local, they try to leave to make it home for dinner with their families and encourage their teams to do the same. You might need to do some work afterwards, but it’s better than missing dinner completely!

PwC: I would say PwC doesn't encourage putting a "divide" between working life and personal life. They would prefer you to be open and honest about your priorities and family obligations. Teams are typically very understanding as long as you are upfront about your other commitments and tell them well in advance.

Deloitte: Deloitte really encourages disconnecting while on PTO. For me, this means not taking my work phone on vacation, so I set a clear boundary with my team that I am not working while on vacation. Additionally, a year or so ago, Deloitte instated Flexibility & Predictability guidelines which means talking to your team leaders about flexible travel schedules and giving team members more predictable working hours. I haven't really seen this play out on my projects which sucks, but I know other projects who let their teams travel less and have more work from home weeks. This is significant for improving mental health, so I hope more leaders instate this on their projects.

KPMG: KPMG promotes flexibility during "down times" - we are able to leave work early on Fridays in the summer and most people take advantage of that. We also have a generous time off package, and in my experience, my teams have been very supportive of taking it. In fact, I'm taking the next two weeks off to travel in Northern Europe. In many jobs it would be tough to take so much time off at one time, but my company definitely recognizes the importance of taking time away from work to recharge.

Do you have any additional thoughts around work-life balance at a Big Four that you would like to add?

EY: I’m part of the Professional Women’s Network Executive Committee at EY and it gives me the opportunity to plan events focused on topics I care about, one of which is work-life balance and staying healthy! At any Big Four firm, there are tons of ways you can get involved and plan events to get people talking about the things that matter to you. There are so many experienced professionals who are more than happy to talk to you about their experiences finding balance.

PwC: Work-life balance is achievable but it's mostly on you to make it happen! You have to be proactive, speak up, and prioritize the things that are important to you.

Deloitte: Work-life balance is difficult to achieve. You have to have project leadership that prioritizes this and also the courage to prioritize it in your own life. Figuring out what work-life balance means for you is the first key step. I've seen a lot of friends quit because the job just became too much of a grind. However, if you have the courage to speak up to your team leads to show that you need XYZ to get your work-life balance, at least you open the door to more options.

KPMG: Speak up when you need help! Reach out to someone in your network for advice or talk to your seniors and managers.

Through talking to these four women at the Big Four firms, I was able to learn about work-life balance and the challenges and successes each one has had.