Congress: For the Sake of Your Staff, Find a Way to Unplug | Commentary

Posted April 8, 2014 at 3:07pm

Spring is here! Blossoms are forming on trees, winter coats are being stored in closets and for congressional staff that means … more hard work. The changing of the seasons means little to Congress. Appropriations season is upon us, thousands of constituents are parachuting into Washington with group fly-ins and the boss rarely leaves town.

A recent congressional staff survey conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resources Management asked staff their level of agreement with this statement: “I have too much to do to do everything well.” Nearly half of all policy staff in D.C. (48 percent) agreed, while only 28 percent disagreed.

We see clear signs of burnout on Capitol Hill. The 20 percent cut in office budgets, the transition to health care exchanges and general crush of work in Congress results in a heavy load for staff and managers to bear.

But managers do not have to merely accept the status quo and watch their best staffers wither under mountains of work. There are creative options for them to consider to enhance the work environment. One chief of staff has a general policy that is especially in force in spring: He announces on Monday during recess, “If you’re caught up on your mail by Friday, take half a day off.” Another encourages staff to explore inexpensive professional development courses that could benefit the employee and the office. “Get out of the office — learn something!” she says.

Managers also could intercede with the member of Congress by getting them to back off on staff, if only a little. The CMF heard one story of a member of Congress who sent 72 emails to staff during a 63-minute plane flight. (While many celebrate the introduction of Wi-Fi on flights, congressional staff lament the loss of the last bastion of isolation where their boss could not access them via BlackBerry.) Put the member on a “no-emails-to-the-staff” diet, even if it’s for just a weekend. Staff will feel an air of freedom (and maybe even the boss will feel better).

Washington Post staff writer Brigid Schulte has a great new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” She wrote that the concept of shutting off for a while not only benefits the employee, it benefits the employer — and yet we’re addicted to our overworked culture.

“Even as neuroscience is beginning to show that at our most idle, our brains are most open to inspiration and creativity — and history proves that great works of art, philosophy and invention were created during leisure time — we resist taking time off,” she writes.

The CMF has taken this message to heart and last year created a new holiday for staff. To promulgate it, we issued an office policy in the tradition of a congressional resolution:

“Whereas, human beings, as a species, perform better after exposure to sunlight, rather than in darkness.

“Whereas, human beings, as a species, as annual cyclical animals, respond accordingly and positively to the changes of the seasons.

“Whereas, Spring-like weather comes annually, but not on an accorded calendar that can be specifically affixed to a date.

“Whereas, there occurs accordingly, and without great notice, a day which FEELS as though it is the first Day of Spring.

“BE IT RESOLVED, that the Congressional Management Foundation will annually designate a holiday for all employees heretofore known as THE FIRST DAY THAT FEELS LIKE SPRING.

“BE IT RESOLVED, that such day will be designated only by unanimous consent of all full-time employees.”

The resolution was amended by the CMF staff as follows:

“BE IT RESOLVED, that management is highly discouraged from engaging in any electronic communication with staff during aforementioned THE FIRST DAY THAT FEELS LIKE SPRING.”

Allowing a team to unplug, even for a short time, not only benefits office morale, it also genuinely enhances employee productivity. Besides, even senior managers need an excuse to play hooky.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.