Study: Congressional staffers believe they work longer than average hours

Congressional staffers believe they work longer hours than their counterparts in the private sector, according to a new survey set to be released Wednesday.

In a study of more than 1,400 House and Senate employees, 56 percent said they think they work more than people who hold similar job responsibilities outside government.

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The findings about Capitol Hill staffers come at a time when public polls show Americans hold Congress in lower esteem than at any time in American history.

“We definitely saw that as a factor. It added to work stress,” said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which conducted the study on work-life balance with the Society for Human Resource Management.

The surveys were taken from August to October 2011, a period after the standoff over the debt ceiling when congressional approval ratings hit historic lows. The foundation is a nonprofit founded in 1977 that seeks to improve congressional operations and civic engagement. It plans to release two more large studies over the next six months — another survey of workplace satisfaction and a look at life in Congress from a member’s perspective.

Fitch said the study, released Wednesday, is one of the largest ever conducted of congressional staff. “This is the first window into Congress as a workplace, in many respects,” he said.

Placing a high value on public service, the study found congressional staffers are much more likely than American employees as a whole to rate “meaningfulness of their job” as very important to them — 75 percent to 35. 

They are also more likely to rate “overall office culture” as very important, with 79 percent of respondents describing it that way. But a much lower percentage, 41 percent, reported that they were “very satisfied” with the overall culture in their office. That represented a significantly wider gap than for U.S. employees at large.

Similarly, while more than half of congressional staffers feel that having flexibility between work and life issues is important, just one in four found that flexibility to be very satisfactory in their jobs.

About one-third of respondents said that job burnout was a significant problem in their office, while a slightly larger percentage said it was not.

In a finding that will come as small surprise to most political insiders, the study found that while staffers in Washington and in state and district offices report working more than 40 hours per week on average, those in Washington work significantly longer hours (53) when Congress is in session compared to when lawmakers are on recess (43). The workload is more stable for employees in state and district offices, who report working longer when their bosses are home than in D.C.

State- and district-based staff reported fewer work stress issues and were less likely to leave their jobs with Congress because of “job burnout.”

The study broke out its findings by job function. Policy, legislative and research staffers, as well as those who handle press, are much more likely to believe they work longer hours than their counterparts in the private sector. Press and communications staff were the most unsatisfied with the work-life balance in their jobs, and more than half said that was a significant reason in their decision to leave Capitol Hill.

The foundation study did not look at the impact of salaries in the public and private sectors, but Fitch said it is being addressed in a separate report. The Federal Salary Council last week reported that the pay gap grew by 8 percent this year, in favor of the private sector. Federal employees on average earned more than one-third less than their counterparts outside government, that study found.