Almost 70% of finance professionals have experienced heightened levels of stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey by accounts payable automation company AvidXchange found last week.
Among the respondents — CFOs, controllers, accountants and FP&A executives — half are working longer hours, a quarter claim to have their sleep interrupted by incoming work calls and emails, and two in five have lost sleep due to work stress.
In March, many of the respondents' companies were without continuity plans. Today, three in four say their businesses have implemented at least one new technology or system to enable remote duties.
"I wasn't surprised by the findings," Joel Wilhite, CFO of AvidXchange, told CFO Dive. "Within my world of controllers and CFOs navigating this crazy window of time we're in, I don’t think there are any surprises here."
Wilhite said he thinks there’s a "pretty meaningful, maybe disproportionate" impact on CFOs when it comes to stress. They often metabolize the anxieties of the whole organization.
Financial operations, invoicing and accounts receivable, Wilhite said, are the most paper-based, laborious, friction-filled workflows in the company.
"If not CFO, certainly the accounting ops world is really faced with inadequate systems and integration," he said. "It all depends on paper. The front end of that process is invoices from your vendors and suppliers. The back end is surprisingly heavily dependent on good old paper checks.
"If, on a Friday, the company announces work from home beginning Monday, most of the company can close their laptop and go home. For accounting, it's not so easy," he said.
Wilhite has been CFO of AvidXchange since 2017, making it the sixth company for which he served as CFO. He began his career in the 1990s as an audit manager at KPMG. His experience, he said, gave him the insights of how CFOs often take on a whole company's stress.
"Business continuity planning in my seat has, in the past, constituted some pretty heavy lifting," he said. "Who's going to take the check stock? Do we pay for a hot site somewhere, like an insurance policy, because we depend on a physical location to do business?"
Wilhite said he empathizes with CFOs who are scrambling to get the job done. Even as automation has progressed rapidly over the past fifteen years, it often isn't quite enough for the current situation.
Wilhite urges CFOs to find ways to take paper out of their process, if they haven't yet done so.
More broadly, workers are turning to CFOs to provide visibility into the future and encouragement about the possibility of good outcomes down the road. Providing those assurances is a leader's job, he says.
"The pandemic has created a situation where it's really hard to see past the next week," he said. "Will my kids go back to school? Will I be working from home all year? To compensate for not having those answers, I think leaders need to lean into communication." As an example of this shift, Wilhite said AvidXchange went from having a 30 minute meeting each Monday to having 15 minute meetings each day, creating increased communication and transparency.
Wilhite added that leadership also manifests as empathy for workers' personal circumstances.
"Maybe a more task-focused leader might not slow down to understand the personal dynamics the team is experiencing," he said. "That really takes empathy, and I think it's easier said than done, but increasing communications, frequency, and opening up a bit more space to understand what's going on in your team’s lives is big.
"In the absence of knowing the future, let them know you're in it together,” Wilhite said.