Correctional Officers and Stress
Stress is a significant problem for correctional officers, affecting life both inside and outside of the workplace. To date, little research has been done on stress in correctional officers, but recently, interest in the topic has been growing. Many aspects of correctional work contribute to officers’ stress and other related symptoms, including:
- Having witnessed or experienced workplace violence, injury or death and the constant threat of these events occurring
- Having to maintain focus and vigilance
- Being held over for additional shifts
- Working erratic schedules
- Lacking job control
- Frequent sitting or standing for long periods, with unpredictable bursts of activity when responding to codes
- Lacking opportunity to de-stress, exercise or eat healthfully at work
- Lacking adequate recognition from society for the work correctional officers do
- Experiencing work-family conflict because of shift work, mandatory overtime, and family’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the job
Studies of the work demands unique to corrections professionals show that these demands contribute to:
- Depression (Obidoa, Reeves, Warren, Reisine and Cherniack, 2011)
- Declining physical health (Standyk, 2003)
- More work-home conflict (Obidoa et al., 2011)
- Burnout (Schaufeli and Peeters, 2000; Senter, Morgan, Serna-McDonald, and Bewley, 2010)
- Decreased life satisfaction (Standyk, 2003)
- Decreased job satisfaction (Flanagan, Johnson and Bennett, 1996; Schaufeli and Peeters, 2000)
- And most serious of all, elevated suicide rates (New Jersey Police Task Force Report, 2009; Stack and Tsoudis, 1997)
If You Are Experiencing Stress
Be aware. Observe how you are feeling from moment to moment and day to day. You can successfully manage feelings of stress only if you are aware of them and if you know when and where you tend to feel them the most. Look for:
- Breathing: is it shallow or deep?
- Heart rate: is it regular or irregular? Normal or fast?
- Gastrointestinal symptoms: do you have indigestion, stomach pains, loose bowels, “butterflies in the stomach” or other digestive complaints?
- Sleep: any difficulty falling or staying asleep?
- Dizziness or nausea?
- Difficulty concentrating?
- Frequent feelings of fear, worry, sadness or dread?
- Muscle tightness and pain, especially in the head/neck/shoulder area?
Try some relaxation techniques. Many people find these simple techniques to be helpful. This is not an exhaustive list, but these suggestions will get you started.
- Very slow, deep breathing: Concentrate on your belly; as you very slowly breathe out, let it go all the way in, and as you very slowly breathe in, let it go all the way out. The key is to slow down your breathing, and your heart rate will slow down with it. This effect counteracts the “fight-or-flight” stress response.
- Meditation: There are many different ways to meditate. Here is one: Set aside 10-20 minutes, and sit quietly where there will be no distractions. Choose a focus word or “mantra” that you find relaxing. Try to completely clear your mind. You might imagine that you are sitting beside a stream, and if a stray thought or image pops into your mind, picture yourself tossing it into the stream and watching it flow away as you return to you mantra. Meditating in this way, ideally twice a day, can make a measurable difference in the amount of stress that you feel.
- You can also try a guided meditation. Watch the guided meditation video.
- The feel of the floor, furniture, clothing or other objects touching you
- The amount of muscle tension present
- The feel of the floor, furniture, clothing, or other objects touching you
- Temperature: for example, is your hand warm or cool?
- Weight: for example, how heavy or light does your arm feel?
- Where you are in space, in relation to other things near you
Grounding is both a distraction and a focusing technique, moving you away from the anxieties and tensions in your mind and toward that which is alive, ever-present, stable and dependable.
- Progressive relaxation: This can be done during the grounding exercise (d). As you move up through your body, tense and then completely relax each part as you go.
- Visualization: This technique is a powerful tool that can be used anytime, anywhere. It involves picturing the stress as a cloud of black smoke inside of you. Breathe it out with a long, slow breath. Then, breathing in, imagine blue sky and golden light entering your body and filling up the places where the smoke had been. Breathe out more black smoke, breathe in more blue sky and golden light, and repeat as often as needed.
Try a structured program. Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi-Gong and similar programs help many people to feel better both mentally and physically.
Exercise. There is a definite association between exercise and stress reduction. Exercise of any kind is effective, so pick your favorite and do it regularly. If you are too busy to exercise, then try to sneak it into your daily life: Keep some weights in the room where you do work at home or watch TV, and do some reps whenever you can. Walk up and down a flight of stairs several times. Do leg lifts while you brush your teeth or lunges while you talk on the phone (but do not do anything that causes you pain!). Sit on the floor and stretch while hanging out with your family. Take the dog or the baby stroller and go for a brisk walk. Some exercise is better than no exercise. If you get creative, you can always find ways to get more exercise.
Avoid harmful coping mechanisms: After a long, hard shift or working a double, you may want reach for alcohol, high-carb snacks or cigarettes. Realize that these quick fixes will only cause more stress over time, and make a decision to stop and try something different.
Listen to your body. If you are overwhelmed with stress, and your relaxation techniques are not working, then it may be time to make some necessary changes in your routine. Enlist the support of your family, friends, and supervisors if possible, and see where you can start cutting back on some of your hours or responsibilities.
Reach out and seek help. If you still feel overwhelmed, then do not hesitate to seek help from a counselor, therapist, doctor, clergy member or rabbi, or any other trained professional who could help you to identify your problem and guide you to an effective course of treatment. Stress-related disorders are common and they are treatable, and you are worth it!
Correctional Officers and PTSD
PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is prevalent enough among correctional officers to support the idea that PTSD is an occupational hazard of working in corrections. A national survey (Kessler, et al., 2005) showed a current PTSD prevalence rate of 3.5 percent for the general population. In contrast:
The prevalence of PTSD in United States corrections professionals has been estimated at 27 percent.
In the words of a PTSD sufferer (from ptsdalliance.org):
“I wasn’t there for anyone anymore — it was like I had checked out, emotionally. I went through the motions every day, but didn’t really feel anything or want to be around anyone. I couldn’t focus. Hours would pass with nothing done. And I know my family saw it, I know they felt the void. I think this hurt everyone around me, which made me feel even worse. I knew something was very, very wrong with me, I just didn’t know what. And I didn’t know what to do about it.”
What Is PTSD? (From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
PTSD is an intense physical and emotional response to thoughts and reminders of a traumatic event, or events, that last for many weeks or months afterward. The symptoms of PTSD fall into three broad types: re-living, avoidance and increased arousal.
Reliving: Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the event. Emotional reactions can include feeling guilty, extreme fear of harm, and numbing of emotions. Physical reactions can include uncontrollable shaking, chills or heart palpitations, and tension headaches.
Avoidance: Symptoms include staying away from activities, places, thoughts, or feelings related to the trauma, or feeling detached or estranged from others.
Increased arousal: Symptoms include being overly alert or easily startled, difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, and lack of concentration.
Other symptoms caused by PTSD include:
- Panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Feelings of being estranged and isolated
- Not being able to complete daily tasks
What You Can Do (From the PTSD Alliance)
People who have experienced an extreme traumatic event may hope, or even expect, to be able to “handle it” and “get over it” on their own. PTSD can make a person feel isolated or alone, making it difficult to reach out for help. People with PTSD don’t always make the connection between the traumatic event and the emotional emptiness, anger, anxiety, and sometimes physical symptoms they unexpectedly find themselves feeling months, even years, after the trauma. Sometimes people don’t know that help is available, or don’t know where to turn for help. If you or someone you care about has PTSD, you need to know that help is available. PTSD is treatable.
- Talk with a trusted healthcare provider. A psychiatrist, psychologist, primary care provider, obstetrician-gynecologist, social worker or other qualified healthcare professional can help you determine if you have PTSD and help you get the treatment and support you need to recover. These healthcare providers can diagnose PTSD and help you determine the best treatment approach.
- If diagnosed, there are a number of effective treatment options for PTSD. Treatment can involve psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.
Psychotherapy: Psychotherapeutic or counseling methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy including exposure and anxiety management treatments, are effective in treating PTSD.
Medication: Prescription medication is effective in treating PTSD.
Resources for Help and Further Information
- Connecticut’s Public Safety EAP, 888-327-1060
- Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) informs the public, health care professionals and legislators that anxiety disorders are real, serious and treatable. The ADAA promotes early diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders and works to improve the lives of the people who suffer from them.
- National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD) is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. They work to improve the clinical care and social welfare of America's veterans through research, education and training in the science, diagnosis, and treatment of PTSD and stress-related disorders. NCPTSD works with many different agencies and groups, including veterans and their families, government policymakers, scientists and researchers, doctors and psychiatrists, journalists and the public. This website is provided as an educational resource concerning PTSD and other consequences of traumatic stress.
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Alliance is an alliance of professional and advocacy organizations that provide educational resources to individuals diagnosed with PTSD and their loved ones; those at risk for developing PTSD; and medical, healthcare and other professionals.
Coping with a Traumatic Event, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Flanagan, T.J., Johnson, W.W., & Bennett, K.(1996).Job satisfaction among corrections executives: A contemporary portrait of wardens of state prisons for adults. The Prison Journal., 76, 385–397.
Kessler, R.C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K.R., & Walters, E.E.(2005).Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593-602.
Morse, Tim PhD; Dussetschleger, Jeffrey DDS, MPH; Warren, Nicholas ScD, MAT; Cherniack, Martin MD, MPH (2011). Talking about health: Correction employees' assessments of obstacles to healthy living. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 53:9, 1037-1045.
New Jersey Police Suicide Task Force Report. (2009).
Obidoa, C., Reeves, D., Warren, N., Reisine, S., & Cherniack, M.(2011).Depression and work-family conflict among corrections officers. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 53, 1294-1301.
PTSD Alliance, 1-877-507-PTSD
Schaufeli, W.B., & Peeters, M.C.W., (2000).Job stress and burnout among corrections officers: A literature review.International Journal of Stress Management, 7, 19-48.
Senter, A., Morgan, R.D., Serna-McDonald, C., & Bewley, M.(2010).Corrections psychologist burnout, job satisfaction, and life satisfaction. Psychological Services, 7, 190–201.
Spinaris, C.G., Denhof, M.D., & Kellaway, J.A. (2012). Posttraumatic stress disorder in United States corrections professionals: Prevalence and impact on health and functioning. Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 431 East Main Street, P.O. Box 355, Florence, CO 81226.
Standyk, B. (2003). PTSD in corrections employees in Saskatchewan. Retrieved on November 1, 2010.