How to Manage Stressful Times on Capitol Hill | Commentary

Posted November 19, 2013 at 1:59pm

These are stressful times for congressional staff. In the past three years, congressional offices have seen their budgets cut by up to 20 percent. This has resulted in a significant reduction in performance bonuses and reduced staff size through attrition or furlough. Smaller staff size means the remaining staff have to do more with less. Additionally, the government shutdown affected all congressional offices and many congressional staff are experiencing changes to their health care benefits. While the implementation of the new health care exchanges has yet to occur, any change in employee benefits results in anxiety and stress.

The Congressional Management Foundation saw this stress quantified in a survey of congressional staff that we conducted in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management. When asked their reaction to the statement, “I have too much to do to do it well,” 48 percent of policy/legislative/research staff agreed while 28 percent disagreed.

The behavioral science community defines stress this way: “When a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Pretty much describes a Capitol Hill staffer to me. So how can managers help their staff and themselves?

Managers’ options fall into two categories: action oriented and emotionally oriented.

The most obvious action-oriented strategy is to reduce stress through a reduced workload. (I sense a gigantic “fat chance of that!” reaction among Capitol Hill readers.) But there actually are some steps one can take. When faced with a work overload, managers can postpone deadlines, compromise goals or standards, or add resources.

Postponing deadlines means identifying those activities or projects that do not need to be completed now. (Side note: the member demanding that something “needs” to be done does not necessarily constitute an actual need.) This could include: bill introductions; certain proactive recess scheduling; and (gasp) turn-around response time to constituent correspondence.

Compromising goals or standards means identifying objectives or processes where the team could make minor alterations that would yield benefits in employee morale and productivity. These could include: reducing or eliminating one or two of the member’s strategic goals for the year; reducing the length of talking points or speeches (force the boss to speak extemporaneously once in a while); and changing the length or structure of weekly reports on staff activity. (The CMF hears occasional grumbling about these weekly memos on each staffer’s activity, and staff frequently question whether anyone actually reads them).

Adding resources is the hardest choice to employ, as Congress is cutting your budgets. But is your office fully utilizing graduate fellows? Is your intern program strategy to hire the most qualified college juniors and seniors who can commit to a specified time period? Or do you offer as many internships as possible (to maximum political benefit with key stakeholders) and end up with the local mayor’s son and biggest campaign contributor’s niece — who goof off for the entire summer at Camp Congress?

Emotionally oriented strategies seem easier, as they require no direct resources. But, in fact, they are sometimes harder to implement because they require managers (and the member) to slightly alter behavior.

These strategies are based on how leaders interact with staff, and the CMF-SHRM survey data suggest that subtle changes can yield benefits. When asked how important “the contribution your work has on the overall goals of the office,” 70 percent of congressional staff said it was very important, compared to 33 percent of U.S. employees in a national survey. When asked the importance of “recognition by management about your job performance,” 58 percent of congressional staff rated it as very important, but only 22 percent said they were very satisfied.

Managers and members can answer these cries for recognition and approval with simple gestures: a pizza lunch with the chief of staff and the office LCs; an email from a manager to the entire staff recognizing one employee’s outstanding performance; and more frequent thank-yous for a job well done. When CMF staff give this advice to members, they often reply, “Oh, they know I appreciate their work.”

No, they don’t, because you don’t tell them.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.