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Survey Details Challenges, Upsides for Capitol Hill Staff

Congressional staffers care deeply about their jobs, but they don’t enjoy the long hours, endless workflow and the toll it takes on their personal lives.

That’s the conclusion, in a nutshell, of a report jointly released today by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Life in Congress: Aligning Work and Life in the U.S. House and Senate” offers a quantitative glimpse into a reality with which Capitol Hill veterans might already be intimately familiar: working in the personal office of a lawmaker in the House or Senate can be grueling.

These findings weren’t especially surprising, CMF Executive Director Brad Fitch said. The last study the CMF conducted on Congressional staffers’ work-life balance yielded similar results that didn’t bode well for recruitment and retention. And there’s no correlation between the findings in this new report and the developments in recent years, such as increased political gridlock or sharp budget cuts across the legislative branch, that could appear to be making matters worse for Congressional aides.

“We’re starting to see a turn on Capitol Hill,” Fitch said. “For example, more people are allowed to make telework arrangements and technology exists for employees to work from home.”

But this report, he continued, is similar to the previous studies: “Congress is a difficult place, with an expectation that you have to always be at your desk. … Nothing’s really changed.”

The 38-page report draws from responses given by 1,432 employees in House and Senate personal offices in Washington, D.C., and in Members’ districts and states last year from Aug. 8 to Oct. 4.

Almost 75 percent said the “meaningfulness of their job” was important to them, and 79 percent said “overall office culture” was “very important.” Only 47 percent were “very satisfied,” however, with their office environments. Though more than half of respondents felt very strongly about having “flexibility to balance life and work issues,” just one in four staffers said they were satisfied with the work-life balance their jobs allowed.

According to the report, there are typically 15 full-time employees in House offices; in Senate offices, the number of staffers can reach into the dozens. They “wrestle annually with hundreds of legislative issues, answer 25,000 (House) to millions (Senate) of constituent communications per year, arrange state-based events for 40 or more weekends per year and liaison with every level of government,” the report said.

Working anywhere from 43 to 53 hours a week, 33 percent of respondents — disproportionately those in policy and legislative roles — disagreed with the statement “I usually have enough time to get everything done.”

One in three managers in Congressional offices agrees that “job burnout is a significant problem,” and 48 percent of managers said they would leave Congress “to seek a better balance between work and personal life.”

Among legislative aides, 47 percent said they wanted to work “less hours per week” and have “a less stressful job.” Communications staff had the highest rates of dissatisfaction, with 52 percent saying they wanted a better work-life balance than what they have, along with a more predictable work schedule.

Serving Members of Congress who are themselves often up to their ears in work is innately a high-pressure experience. But Fitch said the report’s findings, culled from one of the highest response rates the CMF has ever seen (the survey contacted 10,983 employees for its 1,432 responses), would hopefully have a sobering effect for lawmakers and chiefs of staff who want to make some changes to better support their workforce.

“The gap we highlight in the importance of work-life balance and satisfaction should be some cause for concern for managers,” Fitch said. “It’s also important for managers to recognize there is a cost … to not seeing the value of having more creative ‘work-flex’ arrangements [that] create a more productive workplace.”

The report concludes with transcripts from interviews with Tara Oursler, chief of staff for Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), and Susan Wheeler, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho.). They are treated as models for what a healthy Congressional office environment might look like and as case studies for how they can be replicated across Capitol Hill.

Oursler, who has worked for Ruppersberger for 18 years, said her office allows “occasional telecommuting and compensatory time when appropriate,” flexible work schedules to accommodate part-time students and one specific case where a “very valuable” staffer who doesn’t want to commute to D.C. each day can split her time between Capitol Hill and the district.

“As long as the Congressman gets what he needs in a timely fashion,” Ourlser said, “the flexible policies are [a] success.”

Wheeler, who has spent 20 years working in various capacities of Capitol Hill, recalls her early days as a chief of staff seeking insights from other chiefs and from employees.

“We don’t want people to feel that they’re punching the clock to demonstrate their value. Sometimes you might work six hours a day, the next might be 10,” Wheeler said. “We try to accommodate this flexibility.”

“We know that staff may have to take care of personal items during work hours because sometimes that is the only time they have available,” she continued. “We allow staff flexibility in when they take their breaks or lunch so they can utilize this time for personal needs. As long as they don’t abuse it, the policy works well for all.”

Both women suggested a major benefit to nurturing positive office cultures was a high retention rate of longtime staffers who, if demoralized, could easily leave government service for the higher-paying private sector.

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