Long days, high stress behind Capitol Hill exodus

How ironic is it that after working on historic healthcare legislation exhausted staffers are ready to close the books on their own history-making careers on Capitol Hill. Staffers from both sides of the aisle literally worked night and day negotiating and drafting the 1,990-page bill. Now, with their work done and their strength sapped, fatigued staffers are saying, “I’m done.” No one should be surprised when many of these talented, dedicated people leave the Hill in search of a healthier work environment.

Staffers considering leaving the Hill will weigh several factors in making their decision, but work-related stress may be a determining factor. As one senior staffer noted, “For the last year and a half, we worked constantly at a fast-driven pace and sacrificed our personal lives. Now that it is over, it is time to move on.” The precedent already exists. According to research conducted in previous years by the Congressional Management Foundation, half the staffers who plan to leave the Hill cited work-related stress as a primary reason for going. They also said unpredictable schedules and unmanageable workloads are their greatest sources of work-related stress.

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Constant and prolonged stress is detrimental to anyone’s health. It increases a person’s chance of developing a host of serious — if not deadly — physical and psychological diseases and disorders. It disrupts cognitive processing and makes a person more prone to injuries and accidents. For staffers, their lack of sufficient rest, exercise, and nutrition compounds the situation and makes stress management nearly impossible. Immersed in their work, they risk a mindset wherein they become passive about their own health and well-being. In an effort to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities, they unknowingly risk harming themselves — and in so doing harm their productivity. 

As a former staffer, I know that even a little downtime can help combat the effects of stress. I also know that work-related stress is not restricted to any specific group of staffers. It is omnipresent, and no staffer is immune to its immediate or long-term effects. Huck Gutman, chief of staff to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), acknowledged the seriousness of stress on Capitol Hill to me. “Chiefs of staff frequently discuss the difficult conditions in which our legislative staff work, leaving them exhausted and with little time to develop the fullness of life that each of us should be pursuing.” Congress needs to be mindful of this situation, especially as begins a seven-week legislative stretch.

Although staffers are frequently overburdened and underappreciated, they remain passionate and devoted to their work. They accept the Hill’s high-stress environment as tradition and even a rite of passage — the message is: Fasten your seatbelts and ride the wave. They focus more on intrinsic rewards, like the satisfaction of participating in the legislative process. However, staffers are human and they will reach a saturation point. Why and when they reach that point depends on where they are in their careers and how work-related stress affects their quality of life.

Baby boomer staffers already on the brink of leaving may find working in a high-stress environment harder to justify. Few will stay longer than necessary. Gen X staffers with a growing appeal for a comfortable work-life balance will find attractive job opportunities off the Hill harder to resist. They will not hesitate to exercise their options. As for Gen Y staffers, they may be motivated and dedicated but they place a high value on quality of life. They also expect employers to help them balance their professional and personal obligations. It’s a good guess they will not be inclined to tolerate the Hill’s high-stress environment for too long.

A shift in staffers’ work attitudes already exists. Staffers no longer plan to spend most of their professional careers on the Hill. Now, on average, a staffer only spends collectively about five years working on the Hill. That is a high turnover rate particularly for an institution valuing dedication of service. It is quite possible that the rate will surge as more Gen Y staffers join the ranks. Congress may need to put its seatbelt on. It definitely needs to put its thinking cap on because when staffers leave they take their institutional, legislative, and political knowledge and experience with them.

Staffers leave the Hill for a variety of reasons. Work-related stress should not be chasing them away. If the current situation continues to fester, Congress may soon face a brain drain — serious problems attracting, developing and retaining an experienced workforce. The efficacy of the Congress will suffer, and any way you do the math, it’s the American people who will lose in that equation. The time is now for Congress to take some pages from its own legislation and practice some in-house healthcare reform.

Ferrone served as personal assistant to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) from 1988-2008. She is now a life coach, living and working in Washington. Her e-mail address is triciaf@capitallifeworks.com.