12 Strategies for Combating Burnout in Corrections

Editor’s note: This article is the third and final in a series. Read about the causes of burnout in corrections and the symptoms of burnout in corrections.

As a correctional officer, you’re working in a tough profession. Is burnout inevitable? NO! Is it possible to steer yourself away from burnout and possibly post-traumatic stress syndrome? YES! There are ways.

The initial step to combating burnout in corrections is to recognize the scope of the problem. Burnout exists and cannot be ignored. In a Saint Louis University study published in 2019 by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, PTSD was reported by 53.4% of jail officers, compared to 35.3% of police officers. In addition, job burnout is a predictor of PTSD.[1] Burned out staff must take steps to positively cope with it before separation, divorce, arguments, health problems, depression and suicide set in. Taking frustrations out on inmates by harassing them or using excessive force are not the answer.

For example, an inmate, known to be a troublemaker, insults an officer or refuses to obey an order. The officer, feeling overwhelmed about the “BS” he has to put up with, drags the inmate into a processing room and physically assaults him. The inmate sues under the Eighth Amendment, alleging being the victim of cruel and unusual punishment. He wins and gets a substantial award. The correctional officer is fired and convicted of assault. At his sentencing, he may produce witnesses who state that he was under a lot of stress or was “burned out.” However, for the correctional officer, his family, his personal life and his career, it is too late.

Watch out for each other. We are brother and sister officers, and we depend on each other.

Fortunately, there are things correctional workers can do to cope positively with the stress of a job in corrections. Doing so will help you live longer and be more physically and mentally healthy.

Perform a Self-Assessment

The first step is a tough one—take a look at yourself and your situation in life, both on and off the job.

Imagine looking at yourself in a mirror. I call it the “mirror test.” Are you hung over from drinking too much the night before after work? Are you looking worn out, fatigued and exhausted? Do you look and feel much older than your real age?

Then, like in a movie, imagine the people who are important in your life standing behind you—your colleagues, friends and family. Do you think they want to be around you? Or are you so stressed out that you alienate them? If possible, take this exercise out of the imaginary and ask them. If they care about you, they will be honest—and sometimes honesty hurts.

Strategies for Combating Burnout in Corrections

Much has been published, in print and online, about how corrections staff should cope with stress and avoid burnout. Here are 12 suggestions:[2]

  1. Respond quickly to warning signs. Are you engaging in negative coping behaviors, such as excessive drinking, using illegal drugs, misusing prescription drugs, engaging in irrational, violent behavior or having thoughts of suicide? Is there domestic abuse in your life, including physical abuse toward your spouse, significant other or children? Are you alienated from your family? If these behaviors are evident, get help!
  2. Minimize the stress in your life. Stress is a part of life, and you cannot escape it. Accept it. Look at your stressors—is there anything you can do to better deal with them?
  3. Take quality time for yourself and your family. This is hard, but necessary. Build it into your daily and weekly routine. A day off means a day off. Occupy your time with a hobby, relaxation or an activity with good people, including your family. Occupy your mind by doing these things instead of thinking about the job. Taking time for yourself means saying “no” more often.
  4. Learn from negative situations or events. Look for the good instead of the bad so much. For example, you have just handled and restrained a mentally ill inmate. When you get back to baseline, relax. Ask your supervisor if you can take a short break. Pride yourself on handling it well. If you made a mistake, ask for advice so you can correct it. If you are reprimanded, learn from it, and do not take it out on your family, co-workers or your clients/inmates.
  5. Have a sense of humor. It is good to laugh. One veteran correctional officer, after a hard shift, would watch movie scenes from his favorite comedies. He said it made him laugh—and that in turn made him feel better.
  6. Cultivate friends outside of corrections. If you just socialize with people from the job, and they are also stressed out, the negative aspects of the job will be the only things you talk about. Moreover, it is not a good practice to frequently gripe with these friends in a bar, numbing yourselves with alcohol. That is not the answer.
  7. Do what you can to feel better physically. Exercise, eat healthier and take care of yourself. Get up and move, including doing simple things like yard work, walking, etc. If you smoke, quit! If you feel sluggish because you are overweight, lose weight. Be patient—losing weight and becoming more healthy takes time. But it’s essential. Stress has been linked to heart conditions, high blood pressure and other serious health problems.
  8. Recharge your mental self. Do things that take your mind off the job. Develop an enjoyable hobby. Read, work with wood, garden, play golf, travel—the possibilities are endless.
  9. Focus on the present moment. When you are at work, think of work. When you are at home, think of home. When you are at the gym, exercising or engaging in your hobby, think of those things. When you are with family, spouse, significant others, children or grandchildren, think of them.
  10. Make your home your stress-free zone. When you walk into your home after work, it should be pleasant and comfortable, a place to relax. Having quiet time for yourself is certainly all right.
  11. Reach out your hand to others, and do not slap their hands away. It is most important, if you feel burned out, stressed out or worn out, to talk and reach out to others who can help. Many departments have peer counseling staff and employee assistance programs. If your life is a dysfunctional mess, talk to them, and if they want to talk to you, let them. If your friends and family want to talk to you about your stress, let them help.
  12. Watch out for each other. We are brother and sister officers, and we depend on each other. A correctional officer or probation officer may tell you everything is fine, but your gut may tell you something is wrong underneath the surface. Correctional staff expect themselves to be strong and tend to keep a lot in. Ask questions, privately and tactfully: Are you OK? Is everything OK at home? Is there anything you want to talk about? We are trained to ask offenders such questions to prevent self-harm. Why can’t we ask our friends and colleagues too?

A day off means a day off. Occupy your time with a hobby, relaxation or an activity with good people, including your family. Occupy your mind by doing these things instead of thinking about the job.

A corrections career is inherently stressful. The stress, if not managed, can lead to burnout, which can in turn ruin your physical and mental health. It can also ruin relationships and do irreparable damage to your professional and personal life.

Reach out—get help and do things to counteract the negative stressors in your life and take back control. Combating burnout in corrections is key to a longer and healthier life, both physically and mentally. You and the important people around you will benefit from it.

References

  1. Solomon N. (6/12/19) SLU Study Finds Jail Officers Suffer From PTSD. Saint Louis University. Accessed 1/9/21 from https://www.slu.edu/news/2019/june/slu-study-finds-jail-corrections-officers-suffer-from-ptsd.php.
  2. Pittaro M. (2018) Physical and Mental Health: Coping Strategies to Improve Officer Wellness. Accessed 1/9/21 from https://vimeo.com/299314376.
Gary Cornelius

LT. GARY F. CORNELIUS retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification. Gary is an independent freelance correctional author and trainer. He has taught corrections courses for George Mason University since 1986, teaches corrections in-service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. Gary is the author of several books, including The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, and Stressed Out: Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections.

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