According to latest poll, Washington workers are ... happy?


(Illustration by Paul Blow)
November 28, 2012

And now some news that may seem counterintuitive, given the stereotype of Washingtonians as dull, stressed-out workaholics: We are happy. We like our jobs. If we work more than 40 hours a week, we don’t seem to mind. We love our full lives.

Say wha’?

Believe it. In a Washington Post poll of 1,152 adult residents of the Washington metro area, workers overwhelmingly said they were satisfied with their occupations. Asked about how large a role work played in their lives, 75 percent said it was “about right.”

People were asked if they would describe their work as rewarding. Eighty-one percent said yes. They were asked if they would call their job boring. Eighty-eight percent said NO. They were asked to rate their happiness, and 88 percent declared themselves either “very happy” or “pretty happy.”

Though Washingtonians are depicted as around-the-clock worker drones, only 34 percent of those employed full time said they worked more than 50 hours a week. And 87 percent said they were completely or somewhat satisfied with their job.

High job satisfaction a hallmark of the Washington area workforce

Where did our stereotypes go wrong?

What about the political operatives responding to e-mails on their BlackBerrys at 11 p.m., or the federal bureaucrats trudging into the Department of Paper Shuffling at 5:15 a.m.? Where do they fit into this rose-colored picture of well-balanced life?

The answer is that they are a piece of it. But the bigger piece is the quieter Washington that is far more diverse than politicians and federal workers. In interviews with a number of these poll respondents, we found residents of all demographic and geographic stripes determined not to let their work dominate them. We found people focused on spending time with kids, spouses, boats — intent on finding jobs that are fulfilling and meaningful, yet not overwhelming.

“I work to live, not the other way around,” said Annie O’Connell, 60, of Potomac, who works for a high-end furniture maker. “My family life will always take precedence. With my company, it’s the way they see it, too. If something comes up with my family, I’m encouraged to take care of that. I would say there’s a very nice balance.”

A number of respondents said their employers were willing to be flexible with hours and offered the opportunity to telecommute. It seems like a significant shift from the days of punching the clock and rigid worker control by the bosses.

“I think the good companies” are more sensitive to employees’ needs than before, said Becky Feldbush, 42, a graphic designer from Olney. Her current company allows her flexibility as needed, and when she formerly managed a staff in Ohio, the same flexibility created employees who were “much more loyal” and willing to work hard.

“I feel that’s the case now with me as an employee,” Feldbush said. “I’m so dedicated to giving them 100 percent.”

Mark Schmit, vice president of research for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, said he moved here from the Midwest, and “I see a lot more people that come in at 10 and leave at 4 than anywhere in my life. I think it’s the type of jobs that allow for folks to do more outside the office. . . . Technology has really made it possible to do the workplace-flexibility thing. We can be at our son’s recital and still be working.”

Fifty-seven percent of Washington workers said they had telecommuted to work, and 85 percent or more said new technology has had a positive effect on the quality of their work, their productivity and their job satisfaction.

“I don’t know any employer that requires everyone to be at their job 9 to 5,” said Jane Weizmann of Towers Watson, a human relations consulting company with an office in Arlington. “The platforms of technology have just gotten so much better. Everyone has e-mail. My BlackBerry tells me everything. You can have a conference call while you’re on a soccer field.”

Despite reporting that technology was having a positive effect on their work, more than a quarter of respondents said it was having a negative effect on their concentration. Workers younger than 40 cited the negative impact twice as much as workers older than 50.

Weizmann said she wasn’t surprised by the high happiness quotient in the Washington area. “People in Washington have jobs and roles that are highly energizing,” she said. “These are mission jobs — it’s not like you’re washing cars. There are lots of smart young people enjoying each other’s company; that’s as energizing as the job itself. And jobs pay pretty well in Washington.”

Not everyone here thinks life is just peachy. There are the 10 percent of those with jobs who rate themselves as “not too happy,” the 20 percent who think work plays too big a role in their lives, and the 40 percent who feel chained to work somewhat or a lot.

Jim Mammen, a defense contractor from Alexandria, has the complaints we expect to hear. The commute is terrible. Taxes keep rising. Workweeks of 50 hours or more are common. On his 60th birthday recently, a day he would normally take off, he had to go in for meetings.

Balancing work and non-work is “a constant challenge,” he said. “I think that’s true in everybody’s life. But it also depends on where you are in life,” and having young children around adds to the time, space and money juggling.

Roman, 30, from Washington, who asked to withhold his last name, is in the insurance business and works too hard — 50 to 60 hours a week. His company is understaffed, overworking the employees, cutting its budgets. “I haven’t taken a vacation yet this year,” he said.

He said his work-play balance is way unbalanced. “I used to be a fun person,” he said.

William, 33, from Maryland, who also asked to withhold his last name, digs ditches to install cable for Comcast. Some weeks he works 65 hours. One week, he said, it was 70 hours over six days.

“It’s fine,” he said. He has a family to feed, though he admits he doesn’t see them much. “The problem is, if I make hours, I make money. If I don’t make hours, I don’t make money.”

Teachers who were talked to also worked long and hard but expressed satisfaction. They knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a high-paying profession, and they knew that 40 hours a week often wouldn’t be enough. But several teachers, such as Michele Sambiase, 32, of Reston, said they found the job rewarding and enjoyed seeing the progress that students made under their tutelage.

“I would work more if I could,” said Martha Mechelis, 57, of Kensington, a special education teacher in Montgomery County.

Getting life in balance is “something I have to work at pretty hard,” Sambiase said, and other teachers echoed that. “There’s no end point. There’s always more to do. You just have to set limits and realize you’re not going to be perfect.”

The nonstop time clock isn’t exclusive to teaching. Asked if they were expected to check e-mail or take work calls outside of work hours, 51 percent of workers said yes. And 54 percent agreed with the statement “I never really stop working.” In the Washington region, 61 percent said they checked e-mail outside of work “often” or “sometimes,” well above the 37 percent national rate found in a CBS poll.

Overwork is a hallmark of Capitol Hill, and a new study of congressional workers found that the stereotypes are true: Those based in Washington work an average of 53 hours a week when Congress is in session, and 43 percent said they did not have adequate time for their personal lives, according to a study released in October by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Congressional Management Foundation. Only 26 percent were very satisfied with their work-life balance, the study found.

In the Post poll, 26 percent of the working respondents were government employees, mostly in the federal government, and 72 percent said they worked in the private sector.

Still, those in Congress are people who serve at the whim of their elected bosses. They also tend to be younger and more willing to absorb such abuse.

Follow-up interviews indicated that a chunk of those who achieve happiness in our area have become their own bosses. Whether they are consultants or lawyers or real estate investors, they have launched their own businesses and make their own hours. Many spent years in big firms or corporations before seeking a different path.

Bill Oshinski, 56, a Bethesda lawyer, said he left his large law firm 20 years ago, because “I wanted to have control in my life, and you can’t in a big firm. They want to know how many hours you billed. I do what I want to do.”

The pressure to constantly produce led him to work too much, Oshinski said. Then, “I realized I am not a brain surgeon, and I don’t have to cancel these vacations. I take them. ... If a client has a problem, he can find another lawyer. My life is not going to stop for them.”

Oshinski, like many polled, likes his work and is willing to spend 60 hours a week when needed. Tom Budesheim of North Potomac, another lawyer who runs his own shop, said he works between 65 and 80 hours a week, but that’s not too much for him. “I’m only 75. When I get old, that might be too much. I really enjoy doing what I do,” which is helping foreign nationals navigate the American immigration system.

“I get to decide when I get to play,” Budesheim said. “That’s a wonderful, wonderful circumstance.”

The self-employed workers The Post spoke with tended to be older — baby boomers who seem to have discarded their parents’ ethos of “Work ’til you drop” in favor of embracing a multifaceted life.

Sharon Weiss, 63, a behavioral consultant in Great Falls, said she works more than 40 hours a week, but “only because I like it so much.” She said she had achieved a good work-life balance in part by having a great marriage. “If there’s a balance, there’s a reason to walk away from work and be happy,” Weiss said.

Part of Washingtonians’ contentment may stem from the region’s prosperity, with our suburban counties in Virginia and Maryland ranking among the wealthiest per capita in America. When adults in the region were asked to describe the state of their personal finances these days, 68 percent said excellent or good. When the same question was asked in a Bloomberg poll of people nationwide, only 27 percent said excellent or good.

But they say money can’t buy happiness, right? You still have to find your own path, both professionally and personally.

Ah, yes, the path. After interviews with workers across the professional spectrum, we finished with Shakta Khalsa, 62, a yoga instructor from Herndon who trains other yoga instructors. Has she found nirvana in Herndon?

Well, happiness at the very least. “I love my job,” Khalsa said. “And I love this area. I travel throughout the U.S. and other countries. I’m helping people to help themselves in very cool and natural ways. I’m very happy.”

And you better believe a yoga teacher has balance in her life.

“I make my own schedule,” she said. “If I want a massage in the middle of the day, I can work around it.” She has to work at balancing work and home life with her husband, and finds they have to schedule dates together.

But she’s in great physical shape at 62. She makes her own hours. She’s doing what she loves. There are a lot more people in the D.C. area like Khalsa than perhaps we ever knew.

Tom Jackman is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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