Why campaign hours are wrecking your campaign 

Why campaign hours are wrecking your campaign 

Campaign hours are defined as the expectation that staff will work 60-to-80 hours per week during election season. Only they aren’t limited to campaigns. Many political consultants, Capitol Hill offices and advocacy groups can be seen burning the midnight oil as well. 

But what does the evidence say about the wisdom of working that much overtime? Thousands of studies have been conducted by businesses themselves over the past 150 years across a wide variety of industries and workplaces. They all reach exactly the same conclusion: If you want workers to be productive and stay that way, stick to eight-hour days and 40-hour weeks. 

Calling for a return to the 40-hour workweek, Sara Robinson of Alternet wrote the definitive article on the history and scholarship surrounding this subject. Here’s a quick overview:

If your job involves physical activity, you have eight productive hours per day. If you sit at a desk, you have only six productive hours, assuming you started fully rested. After twelve hours of work, you’ll hit full exhaustion. After twenty hours, your cognitive and motor skills are comparable to being legally drunk. 

Burnout sets in fast. For every 10 hours of weekly overtime, you’ll need an extra day off to recover. If you try to resume a 40-hour schedule without time off, your productivity will drag for weeks. Amazingly, if you try to work 80-hour weeks consecutively, by the end of week three your productivity will be so low you would have gotten just as much done working 40-hour weeks all along.

Politics does not exempt you or your bottom line from these basic human limits. Exceeding them puts your candidacy or consultancy as well as your physical and mental health in danger. That’s why for most of the 20th century, it was seen as business malpractice and managerial incompetence to demand significant overtime.

If you’re a principal or manager, it’s up to you to establish and enforce your workplace rules and culture. You have to put actual performance over the illusion of productivity. Campaign hours may be hard to resist, but with effort you can.

Candidates and campaign managers can’t take time off during a campaign – so it’s crucial they stick to 40-hours. If they show signs of weariness or impaired judgment, it’s better to schedule time off than to let the problem get worse. 

If you must insist on campaign hours before the home stretch, don’t have the entire staff working them at the same time. Otherwise, you’ll have to give them all time off to recover at the same time. 

If your office must stay open early or late, create a shift system. Then hold all-staff meetings at midday when everyone is present. If your office needs to be open weekends, figure out who absolutely has to be there and who doesn’t. Anyone who works weekends should take days off mid-week. While they’re off, have an intern cover their responsibilities.

If staff can’t get their work done in 40-hour weeks, hire more staff. Seasonal, intermittent, and short-term workload problems can be addressed with part-time staff, contractors, temps, and interns. 

In October, you can start ramping everyone up to 50 or 60 hours per week, but everyone should still get a day off every two weeks. The sooner campaign hours start and the more hours people work, the sooner burnout will kick in. Send people home if they’re making mistakes or seem out of it. Just make sure they understand a day off isn’t punishment – it’s to help them rest and get back on their A-game. 

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a consulting firm that uses psychology to change politics. Follow the firm on Facebook and Twitter.

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Kelly Dietrich

Interesting angle on hours worked. Have to say I view it a little differently. Campaigns need to work smarter, not harder. Political campaigns are similar, but inherently different from traditional business by the nature of a finite end: Election Day.

Campaigns are all about goals: weekly, quarterly, etc. You meet each to earn a win on election day. If your staff's effectiveness at meeting your goals suffers from putting in long hours every week, it might be time to give them a break - a night off or a late morning start. However, I've rarely met a good staffer who needed this too often.

Campaigns are too limited with time and money to allow regular hours or hire more people. There's simply too much to do and not enough time or money.

Work smarter, not harder.

Kelly Dietrich

PS - In October the hours should be 7 days a week, usually 10-12 hours a day or more. You're almost to election day!

David Rosen

I agree that you should step up the hours in the final weeks of the campaign -- because it's ending and staff will have plenty of time to recover. But if you push everyone to over 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, they'll hit the break-even point after about 2.5 weeks. In other words, after 2.5 weeks they would have gotten just as much done if they had worked standard 40 hour weeks all along, regardless of the type of work they were doing.

Nearly every business or organization that has ever looked into this issue started off with EXACTLY the same attitude you have -- until they saw the data on what burnout was doing to their bottom line and the productivity of their workers. Working in politics doesn't exempt you or your staff from the limits of human biology.

You'd fire any staffer who came into work drunk every day. Yet campaign hours have exactly the same effect on your staff's cognitive abilities and motor skills as intoxication. Error rates as well as bad decisions and judgment calls all go through the roof. Burnout also makes people irritable and anxious -- which can cause infighting, alienate key allies and supporters, and compound the existing problems a campaign already has. I've seen all of these things happen in campaigns firsthand, and read about them in the news. They're remarkably common -- and remarkably preventable.

Whether you accept or ignore about 150 years of workplace productivity research, it's ultimately your call.

Sara Robinson

Nice to see my article taken off in this direction. As it happens, I've been a full-time staffer (media/comms) on a state-level campaign in California, so have first-hand experience with the kind of death march these efforts can devolve into.

Kelly is right: the finite nature of the campaign does make it somewhat more reasonable to push. The time between Labor Day and Election Day does require everything people can bring to the table; and professional staffers know they'll be able get on a plane on the first Wednesday in November, and spend the next week or two recuperating on a beach somewhere. The self-care is built in.

That said, campaign management does need to remember that they're going to get less out of people after even just 2-3 weeks of overwork -- and budget their staff's time accordingly. If you're in a race where you need everybody to hit the street hard in September to secure a strong early lead, then do it -- but then realize that those people are going to need to step back in the first couple weeks of October if they're going to have anything left heading into Election Day. Conversely, you may want to hold everybody to 40-50 hours until October, and then raise your expectations for the final month. Or else: divide and rotate your teams, so some are hitting hard now while others are stepping back to breathe and pace themselves for a later push. Just remember that after that third 70-hour week, you're probably dealing with half the employee you had at the start, and budget your resources accordingly.

More largely: this is a huge reason that campaigning is a young person's game. It's a lot easier to maintain that breakneck pace in your 20s than it is in your 40s. And the older people who keep coming back tend to be a certain type of adrenaline junkie. I often wonder if our campaigns suffer because the long hours we expect tend to triage out people with more experience -- or those who are capable of more measured and strategic thought. It might be worthwhile to contemplate how our campaigns might change if we made them more hospitable for people who have a lower tolerance for life disruption on that scale.

David Rosen

Thanks for the feedback Sara! It sounds like we're on exactly the same page.


The way many Democratic campaigns, in particular, treat staffers is inhumane. Long hours, high stress, big stakes -- these are just part of a tough job. But there is so much blatant abuse. With euphemisms such as internships, or training programs, mostly young people are being paid the equivalent of a small fraction of minimum wage for 80, 90, 100-hour weeks. Then, as soon as Election Day is over, they're cut off. Meanwhile, the contractors and consultants who sent them to the campaigns get rich while doing precious little. No wonder so few young campaign workers continue to work in politics -- or to have any regard for the political process. At least the Republicans have a reputation for taking care of their staffers between campaigns.

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