4 causes of critical stress in corrections

With the proper support, mindset, policies and training, critical stress can be identified and handled efficiently and effectively


By Mark Chamberlain and Brad Hompe

Correctional officers are exposed to a high degree of stress every day. Working long shifts behind walls day in and day out can and does take a toll. Statistics show that correctional officers have higher rates of divorce, PTSD, severe depression and suicide. Much of this can be attributed to stress from traumatic events and/or sustained cumulative stress.

Critical stress undermines correctional officers’ confidence, resilience and ability to cope. Each aspect of the job, including inmate interactions, workplace environment and resulting home life, can contribute to the build-up of this stress. Without proper support and effort, both officers and the entire organization may experience the consequences of critical stress.

Without proper support and effort, both officers and the entire organization may experience the consequences of critical stress. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)
Without proper support and effort, both officers and the entire organization may experience the consequences of critical stress. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)

Four causes of critical stress

Four overarching categories encompass many of the causes of stress for correctional officers. It’s important to note that critical stress affects different individuals for different reasons. Critical stress may or may not directly correspond with a traumatic incident for a correctional officer. While there is some overlap between these categories, each one presents its own unique set of difficulties and stressors to be addressed.

1. Inmate-related causes

The constant threat of violence and the ongoing need to maintain high awareness for long periods is exhausting. Another contributor to critical stress in corrections is overcrowding, which can lead to gang activity, greater violence, a decline in inmate services and higher rates of deviant behavior.

2. Occupational causes

A job in corrections is unique from other professions in many ways. Officers are typically inside for the entirety of their shift, they are limited in what they can bring to work (e.g., no cell phones) and they typically cannot leave the facility for breaks or meals. Critical stress can also arise from role ambiguity – correctional officers may be unclear as to how they are expected to balance societal expectations of inmate rehab with incarceration. Finally, as with many professions, rumors cause stress at the workplace. There are seemingly no secrets in a jail facility and rumors can severely harm correctional officers.

3. Organizational/administrative causes

Both real and perceived poor leadership or management have a profound effect on stress among correctional officers. When officers feel there is a lack of understanding, a lack of communication from their management or that they cannot provide input, they become increasingly dissatisfied at work. Inadequate pay and benefits, less-than-ideal performance evaluations and insufficient resources can also lead to a build-up in stress. Coupled with few confidential services (such as those specifically pertaining to mental health), these organizational causes of stress for correctional officers can and often do have long-term ramifications.

4. Psycho-social causes

Correctional officers’ own personality traits can be a cause of stress for them. Some may be too passive and some may be too aggressive. Either way, the potential consequences of not adjusting appropriately are very real. There is also a widespread lack of understanding about corrections and what the job entails. Misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about the job from friends and family can also create stress for officers.

Symptoms of critical stress

People are often unable to recognize critical stress themselves and it’s no different for corrections officers. Knowing the symptoms, in addition to the causes of stress for correctional officers, can help identify and treat it.

For supervisors: Know your personnel! If you know them well, you will be able to identify critical stress and provide them the support they need more easily.

Symptoms to look for include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Struggling for meaning and purpose
  • Ruminating over incident(s)
  • Loss of sleep or appetite
  • Lacking energy or hyperenergetic
  • Distancing themselves from friends or family
  • Finding no pleasure in hobbies/activities (“I used to…”)
  • Lost or altered memory (tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, altered sense of time)

Consequences of critical stress

Correctional officer stress has both short and long-term negative effects on the individual and the organization as a whole. Over time, an affected officer’s commitment to the organization may decline. They may begin to feel burned out, experiencing compassion fatigue. Trust between an officer and a supervisor may deteriorate and, ultimately, turnover for the organization could increase.

The ramifications of prolonged critical stress are something that no individual or organization wants to endure. These consequences are preventable. With the proper support, mindset, policies and training, critical stress can be identified and handled efficiently and effectively.

To learn about how to mitigate critical stress in corrections, watch our on-demand webinar: Critical Stress in Corrections: Mitigating the Damage.

NEXT: How leaders can ensure correctional officers have healthy, sustainable careers


About the author

Mark Chamberlain served as the first Chief Deputy of Corrections for the Garland County Sheriff’s Office in Hot Springs, Ark., from 2014 to 2016. Prior to his selection, Mark worked for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in West Palm Beach, Fla., for over 26 years, starting off as a Corrections Deputy and retiring as a Captain/Division Commander. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Northwood University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Barry University. He is a graduate of Class #10 of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Senior Leadership Program and held instructor certifications in Florida and Arkansas. Mark joined the Lexipol team as a Training Coordinator in August 2016.

Brad Hompe has a long history of developing and implementing jail and prison programs. He is currently the Corrections Complaint Examiner/Investigator for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, where he has served many roles over the last 25 years. Previously, Brad held the positions of Detention Facilities Specialist, Jail Inspector, Warden, Deputy Warden, Unit Manager, Captain, Lieutenant, Sergeant & Correctional Officer. Brad is a professional service specialist for Lexipol and also operates a consulting business, providing services to jails nationwide and technical assistance through the Federal Department of Justice-Federal Bureau of Prisons-National Institute of Corrections.

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