Written by Aashia M. Bade, PSY.D., HSPP, CCHP

Working in corrections is a fast-paced and fulfilling career path.  And, as with any profession, correctional officers, administrators, and health care staff experience job stress.  This can be the result of common occurrences such as personality conflicts, high-profile presentations, and staffing shortages; or situations unique to corrections, such as lockdowns, health emergencies, or other critical incidents.  Correctional agencies need to be cognizant of the impact these stressors have on personnel; and willing to support staff members in coping with any resulting trauma.

Stress is the body’s response to a serious demand that is placed on it.  It is caused by something external that puts pressure on our being, which we work to resist.
Anxiety is an internal state, i.e., how we respond to external stress.  While individuals with anxiety commonly exhibit intense worry and/or fretting, it can also be expressed as helplessness, tension, irritability, or anger.
Trauma is the experience of violence and victimization that occurs from physical abuse, severe neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and/or the witnessing of violence, terrorism, or disasters. A person’s response to trauma can involve intense fear, horror, and helplessness.  A traumatic experience produces extreme stress that overwhelms the person’s capacity to cope. Unlike simple stress, a traumatic event involves a perceived threat to the survival of one’s self or a loved one.

The effects of stress and trauma among correctional first responders While not traditionally recognized as “first responders,” security and health care staff in a prison or jail encounter and address the same (if not more) types of emergencies as their free world counterparts. Fighting fires, breaking up fights, and providing life-saving medical care—all while maintaining facility security and community safety—expose correctional first responders to a high level of job stress.

This stress often results from routine duties, such as being short-staffed or feeling helpless in the face of overwhelming demands.  Sometimes in corrections, the stress can result from an unusual traumatic event, such as when an officer is killed in the line of duty.  Whether day-to-day or crisis-related, occupational stressors can greatly affect correctional first responders’ mental health.

Job stress for these employees is compounded by the security restrictions necessary in correctional facilities and the behavior of many incarcerated individuals.  Correctional staff may be hesitant to share traumatic on-the-job experiences with family and friends, making it more difficult to gain emotional and social support outside of the facility.  When occupational stressors are combined with internal sources of concern (such as worrying about what will happen next or always fearing the worst in every situation), it can take a toll on the correctional worker’s mental health.  Statistically, correctional officers suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress than the general population; and experience higher-than-average divorce, substance use, and suicide rates.

When an individual who works in a caregiving or guarding capacity is consistently exposed to stress and/or trauma, that person can experience vicarious/secondary trauma.  This compassion fatigue can occur after witnessing or hearing about a significant amount of violence, self-injurious/suicidal behaviors, or victimization.  Symptoms of compassion fatigue include intrusive thoughts and images related to someone else’s experience, avoidant behaviors, physical complaints, distressing emotions, and addictive or compulsive behaviors that may adversely impact daily functioning.

Burnout is another psychological syndrome that can occur with prolonged exposure to chronic job-related stressors.  Environmental and internal stressors, coupled with inadequate coping and adaptive skills, can cause this emotional and physical exhaustion. Employees with burnout can be apathetic, exhibiting a pessimistic attitude about work.  It can also result in increased levels of venting and complaining, with feelings of anger directed at co-workers and the individuals under the burned-out staff member’s care.  These symptoms may seem innocuous at first, but can quickly escalate into a bigger issue.  Repeated headaches; feelings of depression, anxiety, or agitation; disturbances in sleep or eating habits; lack of concentration; and isolation from family, friends, and colleagues are all warning signs that a person is struggling with burnout.

Compassion fatigue and burnout are not the same thing.  Compassion fatigue is the emotional “residue” or state of tension that results from hearing about too much trauma or witnessing the emotions and pain of trauma survivors.  Burnout happens over time and its negative effects can be reduced or improved with self-care techniques such as time away from the situation, individual, or job responsible for the condition.

Correctional agencies and facility leadership should be aware that common symptoms of first responder burnout and/or compassion fatigue include high turn-over rates; teams not working well together; negative attitudes towards management and leadership; breaking or ignoring rules; job responsibilities not being completed; and verbal and/or physical aggression among co-workers.

Medical considerations of stress and trauma

Chronic stress can also lead to physical disease and illness, including heart attacks, strokes, ulcers, high blood pressure, and gastric/digestive problems.  Fortunately, there are steps correctional first responders can take to reduce their risk for illness and to maintain a healthier lifestyle.  

It is important that a correctional worker is aware of how he or she feels and that the individual identifies his or her stressors.  This includes becoming familiar with the triggers that cause stress, thinking about ways to better adjust to particular life situations, taking time to make big decisions, pacing one’s self when taking on new challenges or experiences, and feeling better prepared by anticipating life changes.

Another way to do this is through stress inoculation: a coping methodology that helps an individual to first identify when he or she is reacting to stress and then manage the situation or event.  By recognizing the initial physiological reactions to stress (e.g., a knot in the stomach, raid breathing, etc.), an individual can focus his or her mind, start to breath slowly and deeply, and react in a more effective manner to the trigger situation.

Determining how to reduce stress can be overwhelming.  Taking the following simple steps—even for just a few minutes each day—can help to minimize the negative impact of stress.

Step outside and get some natural sunlight.
Laugh—it really can be the best medicine. Laughter dissolves stress, anxiety, anger, grief and depression. Laughter also boosts the immune system.
Breathe slowly and deeply into the diaphragm when feeling stressed. – Take a Worry Break: set a watch and worry about every possible item for five full minutes.  Then STOP worrying for the day.  If something is stressful, deal with it during tomorrow’s Worry Break.
Perform Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle.

Even though many stressors are external, correctional workers can utilize a variety of personal beneficial activities and coping skills to help reduce their stress.  Delegating tasks; learning when to say “no” to friends, family, and supervisors; and saying “yes” to enjoyable activities and requests are key.  Other supportive activities are taking time off from work, limiting the workplace connection while off-duty, and finding time for small breaks to grab a snack, walk outside for five minutes, etc.  It is also important to get quality sleep, eat healthier foods, drink water throughout the day, and find time for enjoyable physical activities at least three times a week. These healthy habits are the building blocks for integrating self-care and provide a necessary foundation for reducing stress and its negative effects.

The role of correctional leadership in combating stress and burnout

Integrating self-care into the culture of a correctional environment begins at the top.  It is essential that agency and facility leadership teams encourage staff members to take care of themselves and demonstrate that this is a priority.  

Site and Central Office administrators should encourage line staff to take their scheduled breaks, potentially even stepping in to assist with coverage during these times.  Facility and team leaders need to proactively identify signs of distress and burnout problems by having team members conduct periodic self-assessments.  Supervisors need to watch for warning signs among their personnel, such as violating boundaries, self-medicating, difficulty focusing on the task at hand, boredom, fatigue, and/or failing to conduct assigned duties.  Leadership should promote a culture of self-care and prevention by not only encouraging, but also facilitating when correctional workers seek professional help.  Establishing peer support groups within a facility is another way an agency can provide support to combat stress and burnout.

The goal is to achieve the opposite of compassion fatigue: compassion satisfaction.  In this state, individuals look for, and receive, intrinsic rewards in their profession and the work they do on a daily basis.  Correctional workers should feel positive about the important role they play in protecting society.  They should feel pride in functioning as role models for some of the most vulnerable and high-risk individuals in our communities.  Correctional first responders need to understand that they can and do make a difference every time they come to work. 

The corrections community must maintain awareness, recognizing the stress and trauma to which staff are exposed each day and take healthy, mindful steps to help first responders deal with difficult events and situations.  The end goals are to reduce levels of chronic stress, to improve work environments, and to support correctional workers’ healthy lifestyles through proactively identifying and reducing burnout and compassion fatigue.

Written by Aashia M. Bade, PSY.D., HSPP, CCHP, Associate Director of Behavioral Health Services for Wexford Health Sources, Inc.

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