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Unhealthy Hill: Stress, Schedules Take Toll

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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.

Even in other high-stress jobs, such as those at big law firms, the worst that could happen is that a client is unhappy or loses a case a bad outcome, to be sure, but paltry compared to the millions of Americans potentially affected by Congress' every move.

Rep. Jim McDermott was a psychiatrist before he came to D.C., but he says it doesn't take a doctor to diagnose Congress' problems. The Washington state Democrat notes that some of the most intense moments on Capitol Hill including the current debt ceiling debate are intentionally created to force action.

"How do you get people to come to a decision?" he asks. "That's what you're watching right now. The squeeze is being put on."

In other words, if Congress wasn't a pressure cooker, nothing would get cooked.

CMF President Brad Fitch says the organization once identified the working environment most similar to Congressional offices: hospital emergency rooms.

"You have young people in stressful situations, making decisions that affect people's lives," he says. "Everybody's working 60 hours a week and their decisions make a difference. Sound like Capitol Hill?"

That stress can even lead to medical problems.

Robb Watters is a lobbyist who plays an unusual role on Capitol Hill. Watters, managing partner at the Madison Group, is also a volunteer board member of the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, a post that enables him to serve as a one-man referral service to Members, staffers and other lobbyists seeking advice about medical care.

Watters says that of the 30 or so calls he fields a week, many are seeking care for ailments that can be stress-related. Gastrointestinal illnesses and heart problems, some of the most common complaints, can be triggered by stress or poor diet. And the orthopedic problems many suffer from bad backs and knees for example are exacerbated by long days treading the Capitol's unforgiving marble floors.

"There's so much stress in this lifestyle," he says. "How we work and the hours and the nutrition. We're always grabbing food on the go."

But staffers are so busy that even learning to manage that tension can be another task to juggle. The CMF recently scheduled a workshop for House chiefs of staff to show them how to better manage on-the-job stress. But as the date approached, it became clear that the deficit talks roiling the Hill would decrease attendance.

Fitch sees the irony in staffers being too stressed out to attend a class on learning to chill.

"We had to postpone it until the schedule cleared a little," he says.

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