Reducing Stress for Officers and Their Families

By Wells, Doris T. | Corrections Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Reducing Stress for Officers and Their Families

Wells, Doris T., Corrections Today

Author's Note: Points of view expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Correctional officers who experience job-related stress may find it necessary to use excessive amounts of sick leave. Stress may cause them to make costly errors or take early retirement. Job-related stress can also make recruiting, hiring and retaining officers difficult. Reducing correctional officer stress not only saves money, it also improves officers' health and makes correctional facilities better places to work.

Since 1994, the National Institute of Justice has been exploring the hows and whys of stress-related problems for law enforcement and correctional officers. NIJ's Corrections and Law Enforcement Family Support (CLEFS) program has funded research, published several documents and is currently analyzing results from a field test of model programs.

The CLEFS program aims to identify and understand the stressors officers face and find innovative ways to prevent and treat their negative effects. When Congress authorized the $1.5 million program in 1994, the program initially focused only on law enforcement stress. But in the late 1990s, it expanded to include correctional officer stress.

Traditionally, employee assistance programs have been the most common resource for officer stress. These programs, however, generally focus only on the officer with little or no attention to family members, and they usually do not gather data on their effectiveness.

Currently, several other components are being added to stress-reduction programs: professional counseling, peer support, responses to critical incidents that include help for victims and their families, academy and in-service training that teaches stress-reduction techniques, and services for family members.

Stress-reduction programs fall into three basic categories:

* In-house programs, which are operated by the correctional agency;

* Independent contracted services, which are provided by a private, outside agency; and

* Hybrid programs, which combine elements of both in-house and external structures.

There is no one set stress-reduction model that applies to all situations. Correctional administrators must choose the components from each program that best fit their needs and resources.

What Causes Stress For Correctional Officers?

Preliminary findings from an NIJ study indicate that most officers feel that their greatest source of stress is caused by organizational factors, not the dangers of the job, as most people would think. For example, 60 percent of officers surveyed reported that inconsistent discipline and enforcement of rules caused stress; 59 percent identified poor communication about rules, changing rules or inconsistent rules as stressors. Nearly half the officers interviewed reported problems of a lack of support from supervisors and poor supervisory skills.

Of the correctional officers' spouses surveyed, 50 percent reported stress from their spouse's place of employment. The top stressors were critical incidents their spouse experienced; poor communication of rules, changing rules, or inconsistent rules at their spouse's work; lack of recognition for their spouse at work; and concern about their spouse contracting diseases from inmates.

Benefits Of Stress Programs

Save money. Stress-reduction programs can reduce the need for overtime pay to cover for officers who are sick or quit because of job-related stress. Facility administrators lose money recruiting, hiring and training replacement personnel for officers who resign after serious incidents. However, officers who participate in stress programs typically return to work after an incident, and do so much sooner.

Improve performance. Stress-reduction programs enhance staff morale. Low pay for difficult work and a generally poor public image of the profession often contribute to officer stress. …

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