Sept. 2, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Unhealthy Hill: Stress, Schedules Take Toll

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Pizzas were wheeled into the House on Thursday evening in anticipation of a late night debating a debt limit deal. The stress and chaotic schedules make working at the Capitol similar to working in an emergency room, Congressional Management Foundation President Brad Fitch says.

When Republican leaders trucked in a stack of pizza boxes Thursday night as Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) attempted to cajole GOP freshmen into voting for his deficit reduction plan, it was par for the course.

Not only had such arm-twisting become routine, so had dining on greasy takeout.

Welcome to the unhealthy world of budget negotiations: Four hours of sleep. Diet Coke for breakfast. Tense shoulders.

The lifestyle led by Members of Congress and their staffs typically isn't the healthiest think late nights, plenty of stress and an unpredictable schedule. (Members and the thousands of staffers on Capitol Hill are perennially "subject to the call of the chair," in parliamentary parlance.)

But the impasse over the debt ceiling, with its endless cycle of closed-door huddles and press conferences, is only making things worse.

One aide confesses to forsaking his gym membership in recent weeks. Others say they've been drinking more lately to unwind from pressure-filled days. "The inside of my fridge has become a mold farm," another staffer bemoans.

Many Members and aides worked through the past two weekends, and even more remained on call, monitoring the progress (or lack thereof) of a deficit deal. The Senate canceled its July Fourth recess, citing the need to work on the matter.

Even August recess, that shining beacon of family vacations and leisurely lunches, is in jeopardy.

A grueling schedule is only part of the problem. Many Members and staffers lead unhealthy lifestyles, but quantifying that is nearly impossible. One group, though, is trying to get a handle on some of the challenges Members and their staff face.

The Congressional Management Foundation is launching two surveys next week: One will gauge staffers' satisfaction with their workplaces; the other will examine how Members balance work and family.

Conducted with the Society for Human Resource Management, the studies are aimed at getting a handle on how those who work in the halls of Congress function in their high-pressure jobs and how they could do it better.

"We want to shine a light on what life is really like on the Hill," says Lisa Horn, senior government relations adviser at the SHRM. "That's really not something the public is privy to."

One factor that makes life on Capitol Hill so stressful and potentially unhealthy is the magnitude of the effect of the work at hand, observers note.

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