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Survey Details Challenges, Upsides for Capitol Hill Staff

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
In an interview transcript included in a report released today, Susan Wheeler, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Crapo, indicated that the Idaho Republican's office tries to allow staffers flexibility in their schedules.

One in three managers in Congressional offices agrees that “job burnout is a significant problem,” and 48 percent of managers said they would leave Congress “to seek a better balance between work and personal life.”

Among legislative aides, 47 percent said they wanted to work “less hours per week” and have “a less stressful job.” Communications staff had the highest rates of dissatisfaction, with 52 percent saying they wanted a better work-life balance than what they have, along with a more predictable work schedule.

Serving Members of Congress who are themselves often up to their ears in work is innately a high-pressure experience. But Fitch said the report’s findings, culled from one of the highest response rates the CMF has ever seen (the survey contacted 10,983 employees for its 1,432 responses), would hopefully have a sobering effect for lawmakers and chiefs of staff who want to make some changes to better support their workforce.

“The gap we highlight in the importance of work-life balance and satisfaction should be some cause for concern for managers,” Fitch said. “It’s also important for managers to recognize there is a cost ... to not seeing the value of having more creative ‘work-flex’ arrangements [that] create a more productive workplace.”

The report concludes with transcripts from interviews with Tara Oursler, chief of staff for Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), and Susan Wheeler, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho.). They are treated as models for what a healthy Congressional office environment might look like and as case studies for how they can be replicated across Capitol Hill.

Oursler, who has worked for Ruppersberger for 18 years, said her office allows “occasional telecommuting and compensatory time when appropriate,” flexible work schedules to accommodate part-time students and one specific case where a “very valuable” staffer who doesn’t want to commute to D.C. each day can split her time between Capitol Hill and the district.

“As long as the Congressman gets what he needs in a timely fashion,” Ourlser said, “the flexible policies are [a] success.”

Wheeler, who has spent 20 years working in various capacities of Capitol Hill, recalls her early days as a chief of staff seeking insights from other chiefs and from employees.

“We don’t want people to feel that they’re punching the clock to demonstrate their value. Sometimes you might work six hours a day, the next might be 10,” Wheeler said. “We try to accommodate this flexibility."

“We know that staff may have to take care of personal items during work hours because sometimes that is the only time they have available,” she continued. “We allow staff flexibility in when they take their breaks or lunch so they can utilize this time for personal needs. As long as they don’t abuse it, the policy works well for all.”

Both women suggested a major benefit to nurturing positive office cultures was a high retention rate of longtime staffers who, if demoralized, could easily leave government service for the higher-paying private sector.

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