Walk into any cafeteria on Capitol Hill and you’re likely to overhear staffers complaining about their workload and the late hours they’ve been spending at the office. A report released on Wednesday by two not-for-profit groups shows that those complaints go farther than lunch chatter: 38 percent of staffers surveyed say they would leave Congress to find a better balance between work and their personal lives.
The nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, which regularly surveys congressional staffers, and the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association, found that among 1,432 respondents, 32 percent said they did not have adequate time for a personal life and 56 percent believe they work more hours than their private sector counterparts.
In reality, actual hours worked per week vary little between Capitol Hill and comparable private-sector jobs. Staffers reported working between 43 and 53 hours per week, depending on whether their chamber was in session or on recess. Meanwhile, administrative-support workers (comparable to congressional staff assistants) work 40.2 hours per week on average, and management, business, and financial workers (comparable to chiefs of staff and legislative directors) work 44.9 hours per week on average, according to 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The difference is that hours spent working on the Hill tend to be unpredictable and inflexible, according to workplace experts and staffers featured in the report.
“I have learned to not make plans Tuesday through Thursday nights, or before key legislative deadlines,” said one Senate legislative director who was quoted in the report. “It’s very hard for friends and family to understand why I am expected to be at the office if nothing is happening; sometimes it’s hard for me to understand as well.”
Fifty-five percent of respondents said flexibility to balance work and life issues was important, but only 26 percent said they felt satisfied with their current balance. Other important aspects that received low satisfaction scores were overall office culture (41 percent satisfied) and paid time off (44 percent satisfied).
Patricia Kempthorne, wife of former Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, and CEO of the Twiga Foundation, a nonprofit that offers consulting on promoting a family-conscious workplace, said it is up to each individual to communicate his or her needs—whether that means working from home one day a week, working the same hours on a different schedule, or taking a temporary leave during a personal emergency. Last spring, Kempthorne held a seminar on the Hill for congressional offices looking to improve work-life flexibility for their staff. She said her first job was to explain that flexible hours are not an excuse for laziness, but rather that they allow offices to retain their best workers.
“Somehow people think being flexible is not making work a priority, but it’s about being more effective,” Kempthorne said.
Kempthorne also noted that the unpredictable nature of the job is what many love about working on the Hill. Almost 75 percent of the survey’s respondents said “meaningfulness of their job” was very important to them, compared with 35 percent of U.S. employees who could say the same.