Sustainable Human Energy
Editor’s Note: When we think about what a life-giving workplace filled with creativity would look like, and compare that to Congress, it’s stunning how big the gap is between the two. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We’ve already outlined what rethinking Capitol Hill’s burnout culture would look like, and today, a current congressional staffer takes ideas from The Energy Project and contrasts them with daily life on Capitol Hill.
Here’s the truth: American politics is dysfunctional because we don’t lead ourselves well: our ideologies aside, we don’t live or work as free people. But we can. Every political interaction—especially our own workplaces—can reflect the deep internal conviction: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
-Caleb Paxton, LIBERATUS Founder
SUSTAINABLE HUMAN ENERGY
Recently, I was talking to my friend about my plans to change careers within the next six months. I told him that I feel like I lost a part of myself when I started working on the Hill, and I would like to find it again. The truth is that life on Capitol Hill is draining. You put in your three to four years in your early twenties until you physically can no longer stand it, and then you leave to lobby. It’s a vicious cycle that is not only hurting the employees but is honestly hurting our nation.
The question is, “How do we reshape Capitol Hill work culture in a way that creates sustainable energy instead of continuous burnout?”
In response to this question, I will focus on the work of The Energy Project, a company that “partners with organizations, coaches, and individuals, to create workplaces that are healthier, happier, and high performing.” In 2014, The Energy Project partnered with the Harvard Business Review to study and report on the factors that impact how people feel at work. The report outlines four core energy needs, which are physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The overall thesis is that humans are meant to alternate between spending and renewing energy. When leaders realize this, they will “take better care of their people, so people can take better care of their business.”
Let’s begin with the physical, which is comprised of sleep, daytime rest, fitness, and nutrition. On Capitol Hill, physically depleting yourself is a badge of honor. Our Legislative Director likes to tell us that if we are sick, tired, and disconnected from our social circles by the end of Appropriations season, we probably did something right. What if instead of this, staffers were encouraged to leave their desk for lunch, take walks in the afternoon, and leave before eight? When staffers are able to replenish their physical energy, it gives them the ability to be fully engaged when they are working. This results in superior work, produced by content staff.
Next is the emotional. This core energy need is about cultivating the emotions associated with high performance, which are feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction, and a sense of safety and trust. In my experience, safety and trust is where Capitol Hill offices really miss the mark. The culture around training and retaining employees is that if you yell at them enough and cultivate fear around them making missteps, then they will do good work. However, all this does is create anxiety and resentment, which not only removes safety and trust within the workplace, but also makes the feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction nearly impossible.
The mental is the third energy need, which deals with focus and prioritization. In our current context of non-stop access to technology, expectations are higher than ever. On the Hill, this means that you will always answer emails right away: nights, weekends, and vacations. Also, during the day, we are expected to meet with constituents, staff the member for hearings and markups, and complete daily projects, while also being immediately available to respond to texts and emails. This inability to really focus or prioritize tasks is one of the greatest reasons people have to work such long hours, causing them to be mentally and physically depleted.
Last is the spiritual, which includes people feeling connected to the mission of their organization, and thus, finding meaning and purpose in their work. In the report, this was found to be the single most important factor in job satisfaction and retention. When reflecting on Capitol Hill work culture, this makes perfect sense. As I have outlined, the Hill is well known as a grind. However, people keep working there, and I think a large reason is because they believe in what it represents. Fresh-faced college students graduate and want to “make a difference” in the world, and where could be better than the center of American politics? The problem is that when you actually start working, you realize how broken politics actually is, which causes many people to quickly lose heart.
As I’ve outlined, and as every staffer knows, Capitol Hill is a far cry from a place that invests in people’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs. Instead, it is characterized by long hours, anxiety, unrealistic expectations, and high turnover. Ultimately, this results in our nation being run by twenty-somethings who shoulder the grind as long as they can before leaving to find a career that meets at least one of their core energy needs.
For Capitol Hill to truly change, leaders within offices have to change. The fact is that if Legislative Directors, Chiefs of Staff, and ultimately Congressmen and Congresswomen do not invest in their own renewal, no one else will feel the freedom to do so themselves. I have seen glimmers of this in specific offices, whether it is allowing staff to go to the gym during the day or encouraging them to not answer emails on vacation.
Since the entire goal of Capitol Hill is to represent the American people, let’s start by taking care of the people shouldering that responsibility so they have the energy to do that job well.
The writer is a current Legislative Correspondent in the U.S. House of Representatives.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
It’s time to take an energy inventory of your workplace, whether you work on Capitol Hill or elsewhere. What’s the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual status of your team? How can you reinvest in yourself in order to reinvest in the people around you?
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