Symptoms and Effects of Burnout in Corrections

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Read the first article on the causes of burnout in corrections.

Over the years of a correctional career, staff members go up and down the roller coaster of stressful situations. The situation occurs, the alarm stage happens, we react, deal with it, and then go down to the baseline. It happens repeatedly—at work and at home. However, if we let the stress eat at us, simmering with negative thoughts and anger, we can burn out.

Stages of Burnout in Corrections

Burnout happens in progressive stages, not overnight. Early research by Veninga and Spradley (1981) listed five stages of burnout:

  1. In the honeymoon stage, we are enthusiastic, hard-chargers filled with energy for the job. This stage is like having a full tank of gas
  2. In the second stage, the fuel runs out. We become more fatigued and tired. We may develop negative coping techniques, such as drinking, smoking or “vegging out” in front of the television.
  3. Then the third stage hits—chronic symptoms. We may feel sick or nauseous. We complain of headaches and other ailments. We are irritable and angry.
  4. This leads to the crisis stage—the “job sucks” and the physical ailments get worse.
  5. Finally, we hit the wall, where anger is out of control. A correctional officer may snap and use excessive force on an inmate without just cause; a probation officer may just quit and walk out the door.

The mental negativity, physical ailments and feelings of burning out are all intertwined.[1]

Symptoms of Burnout in Corrections

Burnout can be described as a state of chronic stress. This state leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment, being cynical and feelings of little or no accomplishment as well as ineffectiveness. Symptoms include:[2]

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Impaired concentration, forgetfulness, lack of attention
  • Physical ailments, lack of appetite, anxiety
  • Depression, irritability and anger
  • Lack of productivity on the job, poor work performance

Not only do correctional officers experience mental and physical effects from burnout, there is also collateral damage. Co-workers avoid the burnt-out officer. If they have to share a post with the “burnout,” they suffer through the tour listening to never-ending gripes. Significant others, friends and family members put up with angry rants, indifference and apathy toward them. Arguments occur, divorce rates go up, and people’s spirits are broken.

Being burned out and suffering from PTSD makes you, your colleagues and the people you are responsible for less safe.

In addition, there is a safety factor. Corrections staff must be rested, alert and very attentive to their duties and responsibilities and never forget that they are around some of the most dangerous people in society. Burnouts become fatigued and tired—an unsafe state.

Burnout and PTSD

Accumulated, unmanaged stress over the years of a correctional career can result not only in burnout, but also in post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. Often associated with the military (where it has been referred to as shellshock or battle fatigue), PTSD is very much a threat in public safety as well.

According to research by Richard C. Lumb, Ph.D., at the State University of New York at Brockport, the PTSD experienced by first responders, including police/law enforcement personnel, emergency responders and custody (corrections) staff, is very similar to PTSD experienced by the military. He writes: “Career-long exposure to stress, adversity and trauma due to mandatory response to society’s dysfunction, deviance and disarray eventually takes a toll. When the face-to-face encounters with threat of danger, harm or death are repeated for a 25-year career, we should not be surprised that our personnel suffer from multiple issues that closely mirror the military symptoms of PTSD.”[3]

PTSD is a serious condition that reduces the quality of life. It can end a career through termination, can cause lasting harm to relationships, and can cause the individual to lose essential work skills. This can adversely affect the service to the public safety profession.[3] Think of stressed-out probation officers, juvenile detention staff or correctional officers having to deal with offenders, make field visits, search inmates and watch out for assault. Being burned out and suffering from PTSD makes you, your colleagues and the people you are responsible for less safe.

Not only do correctional officers experience mental and physical effects from burnout, there is also collateral damage.

The symptoms of PTSD can make life miserable in a profession where staff deal with dangerous, tiring situations and dangerous clientele. These symptoms include:[3]

  • Repeat nightmares, flashbacks or memories of a horrific event or situation
  • Avoiding places and people that are reminders of past events
  • Feeling of emotional numbness, being cut off from other people
  • Feelings of uncaring toward people around you, or losing interest in things or activities
  • Feeling depressed, anxious, irritated or jittery; negative moods
  • Feeling that something bad is going to happen, or a sense of panic
  • Excessive worry, concerns
  • Numbing your feelings with alcohol and/or drugs
  • Difficulties in many areas: sleeping, personal relationships, managing time, and focusing
  • Being accident-prone
  • Conflicts and disagreements with people on and off the job

A Dangerous Path

Suffering from burnout in corrections is serious. Many correctional staff are separated or divorced; they do little or nothing with their family. They do not enjoy life; they feel fatigued and worn out. Their minds are on the job, all the time. They never seem to relax or unwind. They take out their frustrations and anger on those around them, including inmates and clients. They self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.

Left unaddressed, the symptoms of burnout in corrections can lead to PTSD and suicidal ideation. Understanding the causes and recognizing the symptoms are necessary steps to mitigating burnout in corrections. In my next article, I’ll provide steps for preventing it.

References

  1. Cornelius G. Stressed Out! Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections. Alexandria, VA: American Correctional Association, 2005.
  2. Bourg Carter S. (11/26/13) The Tell-Tale Signs of Burnout … Do You Have Them?” Psychology Today. Accessed 1/9/21 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them
  3. Lumb R. (2016) The Reality of PTSD in Police/Law Enforcement, Emergency Responders, and Custody Services. The College at Brockport: State University of New York. Accessed 1/9/21 from https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=crj_facpub
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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