Are Capitol Hill staffers as stressed out as we imagine they are?

November 4, 2012

The Capitol Hill staffers of our stereotypes are under a dizzying amount of stress: We envision them spending late nights at their desks, being tethered to their smartphones on weekends, and dealing with perpetual fatigue from juggling mounds of work on frequently shifting schedules.

In October, a rare study was released that examined what Congress is like as a workplace, and it found that these generalizations are largely true.

Congressional workers are deeply committed to their jobs, the study found, but they are also frequently stressed out by them. Many of these employees put in long hours and say they have too little time for their personal lives and to complete all the work that’s assigned to them, according to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Congressional Management Foundation.

Congressional staffers in Washington report that they work an average of 53 hours a week when Congress is in session. Forty-three percent of them disagreed with the statement, “I have adequate time for my personal life.”

Employees who were based in a member’s home state had different answers: They reported fewer hours worked, and only 23 percent felt they didn’t have enough time for their personal lives.

Thirty-three percent of all congressional workers disagreed with the statement “I usually have enough time to get everything done.” Among policy and legislative staffers, that figure was even higher: 48 percent.

Researchers and Capitol Hill staffers said that a variety of factors may be causing employees to feel frazzled. Brad Fitch, chief executive of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, said the number of full-time congressional staff has not increased since 1975. So even though the workload has picked up, it’s not being spread among more people.

Being in touch 24/7

Fitch also said that thanks to smartphones, the politician is rarely without a line of communication to his or her staff.

“It just puts added pressure on staff to be on the clock all the time,” he said.

E-mail and social media have also given constituents easy ways to contact their representative or senator, meaning staffers have more correspondence to sift through.

The survey of more than 1,400 workers also found that most congressional employees find workplace flexibility to be important, but only 29 percent of them reported being very satisfied with their work-life balance.

Given those findings, the researchers who conducted the study are urging managers on Capitol Hill to adopt more flexible work schedules as a way to hang onto top workers and prevent them from burning out.

“Workplace flexibility is such a business imperative,” said Lisa Horn, a co-project director for SHRM. “It directly impacts those bottom line issues” of retention and productivity.

Tara Oursler, chief of staff for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), said implementing this type of shift can be difficult.

On Capitol Hill, “it’s very traditional, it’s very old fashioned, and it takes a very long time for culture to change,” Oursler said.

But within her own team, Oursler strives to set a different tone. In the past, she said it was common practice to have the whole staff stay at the office until midnight on the evening of a vote. She’s done away with that; the only workers who stay are those whose work portfolio is directly involved.

She also makes an effort to keep employees from working excessively when Congress is not in session.

“When we do have down time, it’s good to let them take advantage of that,” Oursler said.

Her approach is a result of a shift she’s seen in the priorities of her staffers.

During her 20-year career in politics, “What always motivated me was more pay, bigger title,” Oursler said. But now, she added, “younger people are asking for more flexibility.”

Still, flexibility measures that work in one office might not get as much traction in another office. The researchers emphasized that Capitol Hill is not a monolith. Instead, it’s a collection of small businesses with distinct human resources policies and practices.

“Just as we suggest for the private sector, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy,” Horn said.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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