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Members of Congress Hold ‘Extreme Jobs,’ Report Says

By Kathy Gurchiek  3/13/2013
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When members of the U.S. House of Representatives meet with Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members on Capitol Hill on March 13, 2013, the legislators will be doing what they say is most critical to their effectiveness and job satisfaction—staying in touch with constituents.

And while they’d like to have more time for family, friends and personal interests, they aren’t willing to cut back on work to make that happen. They’re most satisfied, in fact, with aspects of their lives that are work-related. Less important to their job satisfaction: having good working relationships with members of their state delegation, political party members, party leaders and colleagues in other parties.

Those are among the findings from Life in Congress: The Member Perspective, a survey that SHRM and the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) fielded in August 2011, a nonelection year, and released during SHRM’s 2013 Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

“This report paints a picture of life as a member of Congress [that is] somewhat different than the one usually portrayed to the public,” said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of CMF and a contributor to the report, in a news release. The survey report is based on responses from 25 of the 441 members of the House of Representatives and augmented by CMF research and data from its 35 years of work with members of Congress.

The public doesn’t realize the number of hours that legislators work and the personal sacrifices they make, such as spending time away from family, Fitch noted during a press briefing. The survey respondents reported putting in about 70 hours per week when Congress is in session—similar to what the Pew Research Center found in a 1998 survey—and 59 hours per week in their district when Congress is recessed. Slightly more than half do not think their constituents are aware of the House member’s day-to-day work schedules.

A typical workday in Washington, D.C., starts as early as 6 a.m. and consists of floor votes, committee hearings and voting on amendments to legislation at the committee level, caucus and conference meetings with colleagues, staff meetings, appointments with constituent groups and lobbyists, and communications activities such as press conferences, interviews and reviewing constituent mail.

The day ends at 8 p.m. or later and may include work-related reading at home, according to the report. 

House members estimate that most of their time in D.C. is spent on legislative and policy work (35 percent), followed by constituent concerns (17 percent), and campaign or political work (17 percent). They spend a combined 18 percent on press relations and administrative work, and 15 percent on their personal lives—time with family and friends and in pursuit of personal interests.

It’s a schedule that is akin, authors of the new report say, to workaholics and high-earning, private-sector “extreme jobs” that the Harvard Business Review identified in a December 2006 article.

And like those in extreme jobs, members of Congress are energized by the fast pace, challenge and sense of accomplishment.

“Despite long and tedious hours they’re putting in, they’re feeling satisfied,” explained Lisa Horn, SHRM’s co-leader of SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative. “They’re negotiating their work/life fit. It’s not necessarily about finding the balance but finding your unique work/life fit.”

Job Satisfaction

Two-thirds of House members surveyed have missed a major family event in the last year because of their job; this is hardly surprising, given that 85 percent of respondents do not move their family members or significant others to Washington.

But while 86 percent of respondents say they spend too little time with family and friends and pursuing personal interests—and claim they want more time to do so—they’re unwilling to cut back on their long work hours to make time for nonwork activities.

“They don’t like saying no” and tend to put constituents ahead of spouse and children, Fitch said. “They feel a responsibility to say yes to so many people. … A desire to please people is not particularly uncommon in the American workforce,” he added.

If they cut back on anything, it wouldn’t be political or campaign work; 43 percent of respondents said they spend too little time on this work, which includes fund-raising and campaign events.

Asked which aspects of the job were most critical to their job satisfaction, members ranked keeping in touch with constituents (95 percent of respondents) highest. Spending time with family was important—selected by 68 percent of those surveyed—but ranked behind “understanding how their job contributes to society as a whole” (75 percent) and just above “having clear goals” (58 percent).

The report is the second in a three-part “Life in Congress” series from SHRM and the CMF.

The average respondent was 58 years old and serving his or her fifth two-year term in Congress; 52 percent were Democrats and 48 percent were Republicans; 84 percent were men and 16 percent women.

The first report in the series, “Life in Congress: Aligning Work and Life in the U.S. House and Senate,” was released in October 2012. That report found that workplace flexibility was important to House and Senate staffers but that only about one-fourth were satisfied with the flexibility that was available to them.

The last survey in the series will look at traditional elements of job satisfaction such as compensation and benefits for staff members on Capitol Hill. It will be released spring 2013.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.


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