The Hill Life: Slipping the Chains

Oct 12, 2011

Since I left the Hill three months ago, everyone, from my building’s doorman to my closest friends, has been telling me how much happier I seem.  Admittedly, I’m not exactly a bushelful of sunshine and ponies, but I didn’t think that my demeanor had changed all that much until I had lunch with an old colleague.

“Everyone feels that way when they leave the Hill, Belle,” she said with her slight Southern drawl.  “Leaving Congress means leaving the pressure of pleasing hundreds-of-thousands of discontented voters behind.  It’s practically orgasmic.”

I don’t know if I’d go that far.  But I thought about our conversation for a long time before ultimately realizing that she’s right.

When you work for a Member of Congress, you spend nine hours a day sifting through a grain silo filled with negativity. 

Voters call to yell at you about everything from the price of gas, to the lack of bipartisanship, to the little green men who torture them in their sleep.  You spend your day reading news stories, editorials, blog posts and tweets, the majority of them critical of your Boss and the work that you do.  And you become increasingly paranoid and suspicious, constantly on the lookout for the next pitfall. 

Not to mention the fact that every time you turn on the news, there is a fresh set of seemingly-insurmountable problems for Congress to solve.  And there are times when it feels like you’re making your own wind, fanning the flames higher.

Some people, like my former co-worker Virginia, deal with the negativity and the stress well (or seem to at least), but I never did. 

Every phone call, email, news story or tense conversation was another mill weight around my neck.  Some things were easy to ignore, but others just piled on until I looked like Jacob Marley, covered in chains.

I think that my increasingly heavy burden was exacerbated by the fact that I’ve never really made D.C. my home.  I have my friends and I have the blog, but most of the people who I really care about live elsewhere.  So the catharsis that I craved was usually thousands of miles away. 

I wish that I had more advice to offer young staffers on how to deal with all the negativity and pessimism that they face on a daily basis.  But the truth is, besides encouraging people to have a life outside of work, I don’t have much advice to offer. I was never particularly good at dealing with that particular pitfall.

So I thought that I’d start the discussion, and maybe a few well-adjusted Hill Staffers could chime in in the comments with tips on processing and alleviating the emotional burdens that come with working on the Hill. 


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  1. KC says:

    Belle – and all readers – As happy as I am for you, Belle, that you've found success both on and off the Hill, sometimes, it's hard for people like me, a 26 year old with a masters degree who works in a thankless legal assistant type job to hear complaints about the Hill when it is literally MY DREAM to work there. Yes, I know about the long hours, the miserable bosses, the complaining consitutants….but I've been in DC since graduatating college and cannot “crack” the Hill. Some girls grow up wanting to be models or actresses or astronauts, well my dream is to be an LA. I have my masters in Applied Politics from a great local school, I've done two internships, I've worked steady jobs in law firms locally…but no one on the hill will give me a chance, I suppose, because I'm not from the right district, or really don't have any paid experience. How about some advice for those of us who are DYING to get on the hill (in a paid capacity…) I'm not giving up on my dream – and I know what a crazy dream it is, but to me, I'd wear that “staff” badge like a freakin' Birkin bag.

  2. TAinDC says:

    Although I don't work on the Hill (up on K Street – welcome, by the way, Belle!), my boyfriend is a staffer of a not-so-easy-to-work-for Member, and I see the daily struggle it can be to work on the hill.
    Everyone has different ways to relieve their stress, whether it's spending some time alone doing something else or pouring your heart out on the phone, it's about finding what's right for you. The best thing I like to remind the BF of is although work can be demeaning (everyone from constituents yelling on the phone, to the Member making life miserable and being needier than a two-year-old) when he comes home, he has a plethora of friends and family that think the world of him.
    But I must admit, even though working on K Street is no walk in the park, I am thankful that I don't work in certain Hill offices.

  3. Belle says:

    KC: Go look back at some of the early Hill Life posts. There is lots of advice on how to get a job on the Hill, sometimes it takes awhile. It took me three years, two internships, a master's, and about a thousand miles of campaign doorbelling.

    I'm not complaining about the Hill, I'm recognizing that, unlike many other jobs, the Hill has unique challenges. The emotional toll that working on the Hill can take is a topic that needs to be discussed so that people don't burn out and quit their jobs or worse abandon their dreams because it's difficult.

  4. KellyW says:

    I agree with Belle 100 PERCENT. There is an emotional toll that comes with working on the Hill, one that too many staffers drown in alcohol.

    I tell all of my LAs and LCs to go to the gym. Working out helps with stress, and it clears my mind.

    You'd be shocked how many Chiefs and LDs have therapists. Everyone I know seems to be in therapy. For some people that's the only thing that helps.

  5. Em says:

    I can totally relate. I used to work on the Hill for three years for a not-so-easy boss until recently leaving to go back to school. Although I will forever be grateful for my experience, there were times when I was miserably stressed out. The work is demanding, the pressure is high and the staff are often not thanked.

    My advice to current or future Hill staff: attempt to live a healthy lifestyle (aka do not drink away your stress) and do not forget that you never have to take demeaning lectures or verbal abuse no matter how famous your boss is.

  6. V says:

    I resolved my Hill-related stress by leaving – and I am about 300% happier now! I will admit, it took my Boss losing his reelection to get me to find a job in the private sector, but my mental and physical health is so much better now.

    KC – I'm sure you've heard this a million times, but the way to get a job on the Hill is to network. My old boss got her start by emailing all the LD's on the Hill that she was interested in working for and asking for a 10 minute informational interview. Don't ask for a job, just ask how they got their job, and leave them a resume to share with anyone looking to hire. I'd start with the offices you interned with. Now for the harsh advice – in my old office, we had an intern who was on his third Hill internship, with no luck of finding a permanent job. Once we got to know him, it became clear why. I won't go into it, but he wasn't hireable on the Hill, and there's a chance your former intern coordinators, etc recognized that about you too. I hope this isn't the case for you but take some time to look at your past performance in internships and reevaluate if you are a good fit for an LA position, regardless of your education and experience. I wish you the best of luck with whatever you decide to do!

  7. M says:

    Had a semithoughtful post typed out, but sadly it was eaten so here's a short version.

    On the “outside” there's a lot less control over your issues. you're constantly wondering if the staffer will actually get said issue done, what if Congress decides to add X provision into some overarching package, and no mrs. board member I don't control 100% of Congress (despite all my practice with ESP). Curious how other deal with these

  8. Anne says:

    AMEN!!! I work for one of the kindest and most low-key members out there, and I think my boss' outlook sets the stage for the rest of us. But I stick to three things: Maintain a work-life balance, be vigilant about my health, and make and maintain bipartisan friendships. The last one is my saving grace … in this business, it would be easy to demonize political opponents and there will ALWAYS be something frustrating about politics. But when you have real friends on the other side of the aisle, you know that the other guys are just like you– working hard, trying to do right, getting frustrated, etc.– you also have people who understand the business but are going to keep you sharp and open-minded. It makes it a little easier to tune the nonsense out for me.

  9. SJ says:

    I don't work on the Hill, but this post rang true for me because I'm in another high pressure, high stress industry — the media. You want thankless with long hours, preach on. I've thought of getting out and I know at some point I will, but there are still elements of my job that I love. The negativity is definitely not one of them, and while it's cliche to say, it's true that you need a life outside of work. I used to come home, watch the news, flip between channels, read news blogs, until finally one of my older, wiser coworkers told me I needed to take a step back and stop living my job. It was the greatest advice I could have received. Keeping friends and a life outside of work (who don't work in your industry!) is a great way to keep the little things in perspective. If you need a place to start, try volunteering on a regular basis. This may be corny and cliche, but it saved me from nearly crumbling under the pressure at work.

  10. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    I know I am very lucky to have a great boss and great colleagues who love and cherish their families. We are all encouraged to maintain a work-family balance that keeps us happy and productive. The key to Hill life is finding a way to surround yourself with good people. At work and outside of work.

  11. WG says:

    I have been on the Hill for 12 years and the negativity is always here. My advice is to have something outside of politics and I mean completely separate from politics. For some its a family (spouse, kids), church, gym, volunteering – it truly must be a break from this place. I see too many young staffers only date other staffers, only hang out with people on the Hill, never branch out and it takes a toll on them.

  12. Moose says:

    Belle, thank you so much for this post!! So comforting to commiserate. It has taken me almost three years to figure this out, but the first steps to curing the Hill unhappiness (besides leaving) is realizing 1) it's NOT you, it's the Hill and 2) there is life outside of the Hill (and it might be better! Definitely healthier.) Instituting a strict, zero-tolerance work-life balance (i.e. no I will not miss my flight to my cousin's wedding because that batch is a week old) has helped me tremendously.

  13. The Dash says:

    You're not alone, Belle. I spent 6 incredible years on the Hill. It was one of the most rewarding and challenging things I'll likely ever do, but the day I walked out of Rayburn for the last time I never looked back.

    For me, it wasn't so much my happiness that changed, but I think it was my perspective. As you know, when you work on the Hill, it really feels like the world revolves around that place. Your work is on the news 24×7. Everyone comes to you to complain; everyone wants you to do something for them; and everything is an immediate crisis of utmost proportion. Once you leave those halls, you realize that no one in the rest of the world thinks like that and it is quite liberating. As I moved to jobs in the Administration and the private sector, the Hill was always there and something we had to be aware of, but it all of a sudden became one small component of a much larger picture. The new jobs, of course, came with their own unique pressures (if you think constituents are bad, wait until you encounter shareholders) and challenges – some less than those on the Hill and some far greater.

  14. Belle says:

    Dash-That's true. It does feel like a Hill-centric universe, and it's tough to reorder those priorities after hours.

  15. EP says:

    Couldn't agree more, Belle! I used to work for a Democratic Senator and didn't realize how completely miserable it made me…until I left The Hill. It's a continuous cycle of negativity, but also an incredibly rewarding job when you get your victories. Double edged sword, I suppose! 🙂

  16. K says:

    Three thoughts:

    1. Run! (or bike, or row, or swim, but move your body in some manner, multiple times a week for 30 minutes or more. Long runs on the weekend, alone were a godsend for Hill stress.)

    2. Make non-Hill friends. (Sometimes we need to remember that we live in a Hill bubble and that there is a lot of world off the Hill, outside of that bubble. Regain perspective – so join Junior League, a softball team, a running club, become a Scout leader, start a book club, etc. – find sources of contacts that are more diverse than just folks that live and breathe politics, policy and the Hill.)

    3. Stop over-scheduling yourself. (Stress accumulates more when you have no time for that boil of Hill life to return to the simmer of regular life. Having evening obligations and engagements every night of the week before a packed weekend leaves you no time to mentally unwind, relax and recharge yourself. This is a recipe for burnout. This one is easier said than done, however.)

  17. Virginia says:

    Well obviously I did a great job of hiding my stress from Belle 🙂 But seriously, I could go on and on with advice about life-balance and the importance of finding friends who couldn't care less about what's happening on the Hill, but it all comes down to perspective and attitude. The craziness and negativity of the Hill will always be there, but every day you have a choice as to how you are going to let that negativity affect you. It's not a perfect system; you will have moments of slamming down your phone after a constituent chews you out, but you can choose whether or not you take that negativity into everything you do for the rest of the day. Over time, if you aren't able to let that anxiety and negativity go on a daily basis, it will eat you alive.

    I have also found over the years that some people are just better conditioned for this type of work than others. That is not a crack at people who have left the Hill – it's a shout-out to those who have recognized that they would be so much happier spending 8-10 hours of their day somewhere else.

    Also, I cannot stress the importance of small breaks throughout the day, especially after a tough call or meeting. Reading blogs, perhaps? 🙂

  18. H.C. says:

    I completely agree with this post. This is my first time commenting, but this post spoke to me. I spent years wanting to be on the Hill. After landing a senior LA position, I spent a couple years working long hours and traveling back to the district. This job gave me great confidence in my abilities to handle stress and any question. However, the number of hours you work is worn like a badge of honor on the Hill, and it is exhausting. I was happy to leave the Hill earlier this year. I agree with earlier posts about exercise and outside friends… keeps you sane. Love your blog Belle!

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