Correctional Workers and Stress: Providing Mental Health Support
Thurston-Snoha, Bonnie-Jean, Mora, Louis Ernesto, Corrections Today
A correctional facility is only as strong and secure as its workers. Why, then, does corrections seem to be overlooking questions related to the health of the very people who are responsible for the safety and security of the institution? For example, one can find several articles on suicide risk in inmates, but very few about suicide risk in correctional employees. (1) According to author Charles Fix, "Correctional employees constantly are exposed to an environment that is patently stressful, providing care, custody and control for a population that is held unwillingly, unhappily and often, uncooperatively."(2) Working in such a setting may increase stress, which in turn could increase rates of burnout, turnover and absenteeism. Understanding and securing the health of correctional employees is essential for the effective management of institutions, and for maintaining effective custody of individuals who can pose a danger to the rest of society. This is especially important in a global society where costs are increasing and budgets are decreasing.
Factors Effecting Stress in Correctional Settings
Research suggests that job characteristics (e.g., job involvement, perceptions of danger related to the job, stress related to one's role) are more greatly associated with correctional employees' stress than personal factors. (3) Job involvement, according to Paullay, Alliger and Stone-Romero's article examining the construct validity of measures, which assess job involvement and work centrality, refers to "the degree to which one is cognitively preoccupied with, engaged in, and concerned with one's present job. (4) Moreover, according to Lambert, Hogan and Cluse-Tolar, correctional employees reported significantly lower levels of stress when provided with job performance feedback. (5) For more officers, organizational factors are reported as major stressors, including inconsistency with respect to rule enforcement and discipline, as opposed to the danger related to the job, according to preliminary results from a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study. (6)
There is also evidence that organizational structure affects emotional burnout of correctional employees more so than personal factors (e.g., education, race and tenure), although supervisory status was significantly related to burnout when supervisors reported greater burnout than staff not in supervisory positions. (7) Examples of significant aspects of organizational structure include opportunities for promotion, input into decision-making and instrumental communication. Increases in these areas are related to decreases in burnout, while formalization of rules is positively correlated with burnout. (8) Stress may be related to organizational matters (e.g., emotional dissonance, task control, role conflict) rather than the time correctional workers spend in contact with inmates, which was actually negatively related to work stress, according to one study. (9) However, this contradicts the results of Lambert et. al's study, which did identify a positive correlation between contact with inmates and emotional burnout. (10)
Stress and Suicide
Stress in extreme cases may lead people to contemplate suicide. The suicide rate among correctional officers in New Jersey was reportedly twice as high as that of police officers and the general population, and the problem of such suicides is acknowledged to exist not only in other states, but outside of the U.S. as well. (11.) The presence of increased suicide risk among correctional officers compared with other working-age individuals has been identified by Stack and Tsoudis. Furthermore, one could argue that any correctional worker, not just officers, are at a potentially higher risk for suicide than workers in the general population. After all, they are exposed to the same environment as their correctional officer peers. In fact, results of one study indicated that, in comparison to officers, caseworkers suffered greater burnout. …