A congressional staffer froze recently when elevator doors opened and there stood a member of the House who has downplayed the violence of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Some congressional employees are shaken by what they see as the whitewashing of the attack, and the denials have reignited lingering trauma.
One House employee who works in the Capitol building and heard the rioters banging on their office door said seeing the lawmakers try to erase the destruction is jarring.
Thirteen staffers interviewed by CQ Roll Call, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly about their mental health and how they are coping, point to comments like those from Rep. Andrew Clyde. Despite helping barricade the House chamber from rioters, the Georgia Republican downplayed the events of Jan. 6 at a hearing earlier this month as “acts of vandalism” and said the rioters were “orderly” and looked like “a normal tourist visit.”
Five people died in the attack, including a police officer. Two officers died by suicide after the violence. Some officers have brain injuries; one lost an eye.
“When I see those members in the hallway or the basement, I think to myself that they wouldn’t care if I was dead,” one staffer told CQ Roll Call.
Staffers from both sides of the aisle told CQ Roll Call that denying the reality that Capitol workers, staffers and lawmakers themselves experienced firsthand feels more personal than partisan disagreements about policy.
Security concerns weigh heavily
When an alert went out on April 2 that there was an “external threat,” some staffers said their hearts raced. They said the previously routine safety notifications now carry a heavier weight, particularly since the vague alert language is the same used to describe the thousands of violent rioters on Jan. 6.
A senior legislative staffer in the House said the April 2 alert and lockdown brought back difficult memories and anxious feelings from Jan. 6.
“Today’s alert was the same terminology as the 6th, ‘external security threat,’” the staffer told CQ Roll Call via text on April 2. “Today it was a car; on the 6th it was an insurrectionist mob.”
Staffers said they know the alerts are intended to keep them safe but the vague language begs more questions than answers.
“It used to be like you’d get a suspicious package notification and be like some kid, some Boy Scout troop or lobbying day person left their bag or something outside someone’s office,” one House legislative director said. “You just kind of assumed the best.”
But his thinking has shifted since Jan. 6.
“Now you’re thinking: There’s a suspicious package. Did someone plant a package so everyone is evacuated and runs outside, where they can have guns? Are they waiting for us? Is it part of a plot?” he said.
Some staffers said they ponder what dying at work would be like and if working in Congress is worth those stakes.
One manager told CQ Roll Call his team is concerned about being targeted, including when trying to enter the building where they work.
“The idea of standing outside Longworth in a 30-person line is making us nervous,” he said. “Now we’re aware that if someone wants to cause harm, there are 30 unprotected staffers all just standing in a row.”
This House legislative director returned to working in Congress during the pandemic, drawn back from the nonprofit sector. He is reconsidering his long-term plan.
“I don’t regret going back to the Hill, but I don’t feel like dying at work,” he told CQ Roll Call.
A Senate Democratic aide who leads a team said he is constantly worried about the safety of his staff.
“I’m not sure all the mental health support in the world will do anything if the danger remains present and anyone with a violent thought in their head can get to the buildings,” he said in April.
Lawmakers, managers and advocates know that for more staffers to seek help, a cultural shift needs to take place in the congressional workplace, where prioritizing work over everything else is a sign of commitment.
Many staff don’t feel empowered to take care of themselves, whether asking for an hour off for a therapy appointment or to unplug for a few evening hours to connect with family.
A senior staffer in the House said one issue is that even if chiefs of staff tell everyone to take time for themselves, if a big bill is on the floor or it is appropriations season, taking time off seems infeasible.
“You’re hearing the right words, some of the time. But you’re not allowed to take the action you need for yourself,” he said.
He said his chief of staff isn’t much older than he is and hasn’t been a manager except on Capitol Hill, where management training is limited and training on leading people through trauma is almost nonexistent.
“People need to get assistance, but they’re too afraid of what is going to happen to them if they take a day off to figure out what’s going on with their mental health. Because most chiefs of staff don’t actually know how to handle that,” the senior House staffer said.
A chief of staff in the House said her team is “seriously struggling”; she is trying to help them take care of themselves but feels ill-equipped.
Former Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., a clinical psychologist who served in the House from 1999 to 2011, says a shift is needed on Capitol Hill to destigmatize mental health care and to build healthy workplaces.
“Young, idealistic, bright, hardworking, caring people are working on behalf of their country and getting torn apart,” Baird said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
“I’m trying to think of another workplace where, when you go to work, half of the other employees have the explicit objective of removing you from your workplace and defeating everything you’re trying to accomplish,” said Baird.
Baird said that inroads are made when veterans, lawmakers and staffers talk openly about seeking help.
“It is just terrible this idea that if you take care of yourself and your colleagues and peers, you’re somehow a snowflake, or you can’t hack it. The military has gotten over that to a large degree. Now do the same in Congress,” said Baird.
Rep. Dan Kildee took a step toward destigmatizing mental health care when he opened up during an interview with NBC News in April, alongside his therapist, about the trauma of being in the House chamber on Jan. 6. He said he wanted to show getting help isn’t a weakness.
“Seeing a colleague come forward, I know I sort of surprised some people because I know almost everybody, I get along with everybody. I’m an easygoing person, and I think the expectation was that I wouldn’t have any difficulty,” Kildee told CQ Roll Call. “But my experience up in that gallery was not good.”
The Michigan Democrat said he knew some colleagues and staffers were having trouble but hadn’t gotten help and he wanted to set an example.
“Anybody, whoever you are — if you’re a police officer, if you’re a staff member or a member — we’re all human beings. We put on this face as if we are superhuman, but we’re not,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, where each office is its own employer with its own policies, Kildee and Baird both said members, chiefs of staff, committee chairs and staff directors need to be conscious of such dynamics.
“There is a mentality that takes over a place like this, that no matter what happens, we just tough it through. And we do tough it through. But that doesn’t mean we don’t carry these wounds around,” said Kildee. “And when the dust settles, we need to get the care we need.”
When asked how he encourages colleagues to build healthier work environments, Kildee lamented that he mostly talks with members who share his points of view because that is who sought him out.
Baird would like to see members and top aides set sensible boundaries, like not sending actionable emails after a certain time, but he knows there are some unavoidable late nights.
Hesitance to seek help
“If there is one thing that should happen, it is that you can’t assume people know it’s OK to get care. Leaders have to make it clear, and have to be explicit, and not say, ‘Well, I just assumed [if] they need help, they’ll ask me,’” said Kildee.
Assuming that people know contributes to the stigma, as it pushes the topic out of conversation, Kildee stressed.
“You have to say it. You have to repeatedly say it and create easy opportunities for people to give them the help they need,” he said.
Many staffers said there is a long way to go to make taking time to care for mental health or seeking care an acceptable reason to be away from work.
A House staffer who has worked in multiple House offices described the always-on culture he anticipates will lead to a “massive wave of burnout” eventually.
“You have your work phone and you have to be responsive 24/7. It doesn’t matter if you’re on your honeymoon. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a panic attack if you gotta be responsive,” he said. “According to both chiefs [of staff] and [legislative directors] and members, if you’re not, that’s a problem for them.”
Some said they were concerned about utilizing the Office of Employee Assistance or other resources provided by the House and Senate because messaging from their bosses has been mixed.
“You’re kind of being told to take advantage of them with a negative wink and a nudge because you’re working until 9 o’clock tonight no matter what,” one House aide said.
But a former House staffer stressed the value of the Office of Employee Assistance during her time on Capitol Hill, despite initial doubts.
“Before I used it, I brushed it off as ‘how could they understand my issues with my boss?’ or ‘how could they understand the challenges of Hill staff?’ and I was wrong in every respect,” the former House aide told CQ Roll Call. “OEA is a dedicated team of experts specifically trained to assist Hill staff with their unique challenges.”
She praised the OEA for being able to “meet you where you are at” and credited her working with the office for “breaking through” and making positive changes in her work, and life outside of work.
The OEA has seen a sharp increase in use of its services.
Between Jan. 6 and April 16, the OEA had more than 5,400 individual interactions, including support services to individuals, follow-ups, management consultations, trainings, briefings and group services, according to David O’Boyle, communications director for the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.
“The first few months of 2021 have proven challenging for Capitol Hill, and the OEA has been proud to serve members and staff,” O’Boyle said.