Correctional Contradictions: A Structural Approach to Addressing Officer Burnout
Tracy, Sarah J., Corrections Today
"Are there any more questions?" asks the jail captain during a correctional officer traming session. There is silence. Then, finally: "No questions because we're so satisfied," is the response.
"Come on," replies the captain. "No questions?" Another officer mumbles, "I'm keeping busy back here. I find my questions get me into trouble."
This was just one of many exchanges observed during an 11-month research project (May 1999 through March 2000), during which time in-depth ethnographic research tracing issues of burnout and stress among correctional officers was conducted. The study included interaction with 109 correctional staff employed at a county mixed-gender jail, "Nouveau Jail," and a state women's prison. "Women's Minimum," (both pseudonyms). Officers were shadowed as they worked, training documents were examined and 22 recorded interviews were conducted with correctional employees.
The following quotations illustrate some of the more problematic mentalities found among some correctional officers, namely withdrawal and detachment, literalism and paranoia--central manifestations of organizational burnout.
"They want someone who's like a robot.... If in the rule book, there's a Y. you either go left or right.... The person, that doesn't know how to get there is the person that they want because ... if you don't know what it is, look it up. It's right there. What do I do? It tells you what to do in every situation so there's no room for you to think," according to one correctional officer who was interviewed.
"I guess I grew hard and cold about a lot of things. The biggest thing that doesn't affect me is injuries and death. I just don't have the same feelings I used to have," said another correctional officer.
"I find myself fighting to not be so paranoid. I'll go to the store. I'll go to Kmart or Target ... and I'll look at somebody and you'll think, he looks like an inmate. I have no idea where it comes from ... and I don't even know if I'm right," explained a third correctional officer.
Beyond an Individualized Approach to Burnout
The idea that officers experience stress and burnout is nothing new. Criminal justice research paints a picture of correctional officers as hardened, cynical, stressed, ritualistic and alienated. These problems have been linked to high levels of turnover, job dissatisfaction, psychological distress and a life expectancy of 59 years, according to Stress Management for Correctional Officers and Their Families, by Frances E. Cheek.
While many correctional facilities have increasingly realized and attended to these issues, burnout and stress are often treated as problems that correctional officers can and should deal with on their own. As such, employees are usually trained to identify personal stressors and address them using tactics such as biofeedback, meditation and relaxation techniques. And when employees are considered too stressed to do their work effectively, they are referred to employee assistance programs to work out their emotional difficulties behind the scenes. In other words, programs regularly focus on stress and burnout as an individual pathology. This organizational practice is problematic for/three central reasons.
First, while individualistic stress interventions may assist with personal coping, they gloss the working patterns that contribute to and define stress. Second, individual remedies such as meditation and muscle relaxation do more to reactively focus on the symptoms of stress rather than to proactively tackle the job stressors themselves. Third, due to the private, separated nature of employee assistance programs and the fact that they have historically been associated with alcoholic or other wise deviant employees the programs tend to be stigmatized and thus, underutilized. (1) These problems suggest that understanding and tackling issues of burnout must go beyond individual treatment of "sick" employees to examining the organizational structures and norms that encourage and construct stress in the first place. …