Addressing Correctional Officer Stress

By Lynne Woodruff, Kane County (IL) Sheriff’s Office (ret.)

Stress has long been acknowledged as being detrimental to correctional officers’ health. So what does the research show concerning this topic? Not as much as one would expect.

Understanding Stress
One author describes stressors as “the condition that places excessive or unusual demands on a person and are capable of creating psychological discomfort, physiological pathology and/or social disability.” Correctional officer stress can stem from:
• Working conditions
• Understaffing
• Overtime
• Rotating shift work
• Threat of violence
• Inmate demands and manipulation
• Friction with coworkers
• Poor public image
• Low pay

Stressors lead to:
• Emotional exhaustion—feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one’s work
• Depersonalization—an unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients of one’s service, care or instruction
• Lack of personal accomplishment—feelings of competence and successful achievement in one’s work

You can probably think of other stressors and additional results from being under stress, because it affects each person differently.

So, with the knowledge of the seriousness of known stressors and how each can affect an officer, there should be a plethora of studies on this topic. But according to a recent article, “Searching ‘police officers and health’ on PubMed [an internet search engine used to access millions of articles in biomedical and life science literature] yields almost 5,000 articles, and searching ‘firefighters and health’ results in more than 900 citations. However, only 23 articles are identified when searching ‘correctional officers (COs) and health.’”

Once again, correctional officers seem to be forgotten.

What We Can Do
This lack of literature is appalling, but not surprising to those working in the field. Those who have been around for a while have probably been told to “quit complaining and be glad you have a job” when trying to address working conditions with old-school bosses. Fortunately, that attitude is dying out and new leaders are implementing programs to help their staff cope with the job. Following are some suggestions you can consider.

    • Support programs. Most agencies now have an Employee Assistance Program where staff can anonymously receive information and help. Forward-thinking leaders have started peer support groups to which officers can turn when they need help coping with problems.
    • Policies. As I mentioned in my last article, simply having professional policies that guide the facility’s operations can go a long way in supporting corrections staff. Some policies to consider include Continuing Education and Professional Development, Discriminatory Harassment, Specialized Assignments and Promotions, Grievances, and Personnel Complaints. Policies are an important way of protecting correctional officers from inappropriate inmate or staff behavior and of outlining how the agency will address issues. Of course, having policies in place isn’t enough; you need to ensure that your practice matches your policy and that your officers understand the policies and know when to rely on them.
    • Share your knowledge. Now that you know there’s a dearth of literature on corrections, don’t just wait for someone to publish something useful. There’s a tremendous amount of research and knowledge about this topic within our community. Have you successfully implemented an employee stress-reduction program or taken other decisive steps to assist your officers cope with the stressors of the job? Did you write a thesis on the topic? Why not share your experiences with others in the field? There are several associations that publish articles written by practitioners. Seek them out or even consider self-publishing via an online service or blog.

The bottom line is we need to help each other. Take steps to institute programs and policies that support your staff. Share what you know. We can’t wait for someone else to do it—some of us may not survive until then.

Lexipol’s Custody Policy Manual and Daily Training Bulletin Service provides essential policies that can help build a professional environment that allows correctional officers to thrive. Contact us today to find out more.

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LYNNE WOODRUFF retired from the Kane County (IL) Sheriff’s Office with 24 years of service. She was the first female promoted to Sergeant at the Kane County jail (1995) and the first female promoted to Lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office (2002). Lynne earned a BA in Management and Leadership at Judson College and a Master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. Currently, she is a Management Services Representative for Lexipol; before moving into this position, she served as Training Coordinator and also as an independent contractor for Lexipol’s Training and Implementation Services teams.

References:
Baburam R. Stress and the Correctional Officer by Kelly Cheeseman-Dial. Corrections Today. 2016; Sept/Oct:114, 116.

Cheeseman-Dial K. Stress and the Correctional Officer. 2010: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

Elliott D., Kuehl K., El Ghaziri M. and Chernlack M. Stress and Corrections: Addressing the Safety and Well-Being of Correctional Officers. Corrections Today. 2015; July. Accessed 9/30/16 from http://nicic.gov/library/031375.

Woodruff L. A Secondary Analysis of Staff Reaction to the Transition from a Linear Jail to a Direct Supervision Model in Kane County, Illinois. 2010; April.

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