Wanted: Flexible schedules and telecommuting options for congressional staffers who frequently work more than 40 hours per week and seek a better balance between their work and personal lives.
After interviewing more than 1,400 U.S. House and Senate employees for "Life in Congress: Aligning Work and Life in the U.S. House and Senate," researchers concluded that congressional staff members are less likely than private-sector workers to be satisfied with the flexibility in their jobs.
"This research paints a picture of a dedicated workforce," said Bradford Fitch, whose nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation released the report this month with the Society for Human Resource Management. "Congressional staff values an office culture that helps them be more effective and consistently report that they want to make a meaningful contribution to society."
Congressional staffers, both in Washington and district offices, reported working an average of more than 40 hours a week. Those on Capitol Hill said they put in an average of 53 hours a week when the House and Senate are in session.
"I think a lot of that comes from the unexpected nature of what we do," said Tara Linnehan Oursler, chief of staff for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "Votes can run late. Committee hearings run late. It's very difficult to plan, so you can miss things that are important to you, like a Valentine's Day dinner."
About five years ago, Oursler said, the Baltimore County Democrat began to draft alternative scheduling options for his 15-member staff.
Oursler, a 43-year-old mother to 13-year-old twins, said the input of younger staff workers at a staff retreat got her thinking about allowing more flexible hours.
"They said, 'If we're working 50 hours a week and it's a beautiful Friday afternoon, can we leave at 2 o'clock to go on a bike ride? There is nothing that we can accomplish this afternoon that we can't accomplish Monday. I'll have my BlackBerry and phone with me.'"
They started with a trial period during a slow part of the congressional calendar. Now the office allows some workers to telecommute, and offers maternity and paternity leave that can be taken all at once or spread over time.
The office also recognizes religious holidays that do not coincide with federal or national holidays and allows staff to divide time between Ruppersberger's Timonium and Washington offices.
Working Mother Media and Corporate Voices for Working Families gave Ruppersberger a "Best of Congress" award for the employment policies as well as what they said were his efforts to improve the lives of working families
Lisa Horn of the Society for Human Resource Management, an association that represents human resource professionals, said flexible work policies benefit employers, too.
Flexibility is a powerful recruiting and retention tool, Horn said. It can improve morale, reduce stress levels and help workers live healthier lives, she said.
"When you have more engaged and loyal employees, they tend to be more productive," Horn said. "Organizations and businesses can't overlook that when they are trying to be successful and competitive. And if they want to keep top talent, it would behoove them to pursue these options."
Finding a job that provided better balance between work and personal time is one reason 38 percent of congressional staff said they would leave their positions, the report found.
Workplace flexibility can also include compressed workweeks, schedules that change from one part of the year to another and agreement on tasks that can be performed at home, Horn said.
Nearly 75 percent of congressional employees interviewed reported that they weren't fully satisfied with the flexibility in their offices. Meanwhile, 55 percent said flexibility is very important.
The study also found:
•Nearly 80 percent of staff members surveyed rated overall office culture as very important.
•Slightly more than 40 percent said they were satisfied with their office culture.
•Seventy-five percent of respondents said "meaningfulness" in their jobs was very important, compared with 35 percent of private-sector workers.
The Congressional Management Foundation and Society for Human Resource Management plan to pair up again next year to offer training aimed at helping congressional staff members find better alignment between work and life commitments.
The bulk of the survey responses — 72 percent — came from House staff. Fifty-five percent were Democrats and 43 percent were Republicans.
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