How leaders can recognize and handle corrections fatigue

There are unique stresses and issues that are part and parcel of being a correctional officer; here's how leaders can recognize the signs among their staff


By Rusty Ringler

This article, originally published 3/27/2015, has been updated with current information.

Many of us who have chosen to make a career out of the profession recognize the benefits corrections has had in our lives. From having a secure job with numerous exciting opportunities and the chance to see things that most will never experience to understanding how to be safer and protect ourselves both inside and outside of work.

Most of us can attest to the fact that working in corrections has changed us in one way or another. While some of the changes may be positive, others may have negative effects on us both personally and professionally. It is imperative that correctional facility leaders recognize how these negative effects manifest among their staff. 

It is imperative that correctional facility leaders recognize how the negative effects of the stresses of working in corrections manifest among their staff.
It is imperative that correctional facility leaders recognize how the negative effects of the stresses of working in corrections manifest among their staff.

What is corrections fatigue?

I recently attended From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment instructor training presented by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, an organization founded by Dr. Caterina Spinaris in 2003.

The class addresses the sometimes cumulative negative consequences  a corrections career can have on a person’s personality, health and functioning in general. These negative consequences can affect us at work and at home and are what Desert Waters refers to as corrections fatigue.

Corrections fatigue exists on a continuum that can range from mild stress anxiety to depression, PTSD and even posing a threat to one’s self or to others.

Similar to a use of force continuum, an individual may be impacted by each of the signs in a progressive succession or may enter the continuum at any level depending on the nature of the stress and their subsequent reaction.

Stressors in corrections include exposure to the dangerous environment and working conditions, questionable policy decisions, co-worker relationships, as well as difficult inmates to name just a few. Most of those in attendance found that, even if at the most basic level, their jobs had in fact had some negative impact on them.

As corrections fatigue signs emerge we may begin to suffer from complications in areas such as our job performance, personal relationships, physical and psychological health, our ability to enjoy our non-work time, as well as taking care of dependents and our personal responsibilities. Symptoms may range from projecting our frustrations on family and substance abuse issues to physical health issues such as weight gain, sleep disorders and high blood pressure. In the most severe cases staff may experience suicidal thoughts or urges or act out on those thoughts or urges.

The ABCs of self-care

Although corrections employees are constantly exposed to work situations that can put them at risk for corrections fatigue, Desert Waters shared some ways that leaders and staff can manage the negative impact of job stressors. These self-care ABCs include:

  • Awareness: Self-awareness is vital so that people understand what works well in their lives and what gives them joy. Individuals should assess themselves to understand what they are thinking and feeling at any given time. This includes awareness of when something can act as a traumatic trigger and when there may be a need to process particularly emotionally distressing situations.
  • Balance: Staying well requires that a people find balance in their lives. Balance is achieved when you experience things that are positive and offset the stressors of the job. Enjoying hobbies, time with family and even exercise can serve as an outlet and assist staff in finding that balance between work and play, stress and fulfillment.
  • Connections: It is important that those working in corrections build and maintain personal relationships that maintain a healthy support network. These connections built through our relationships with family, friends, church, or through community activities help to sustain those supportive relationships, which is a primary source of happiness and satisfaction with life.
  • Discipline: Discipline is a crucial component in positive change. Individuals need self-discipline in order to hold themselves accountable in learning to be aware, maintaining a healthy balance and making necessary connections. Having a commitment to being well and the discipline to take the steps to do so is a vital part of getting from corrections fatigue to a level of fulfillment.

There are certain elements of a career in corrections that are innately stressful and uniquely challenging. These unique stresses and challenges are important to understand if leaders and their staff are going to effectively deal with them and ensure that we are as productive in our jobs as we want to be and that we are as happy in our jobs and in our personal lives as we want to be.

Effective management of stress will help ensure that employees are healthy and well while effectively maintaining the safety of the public, other staff, the offenders and themselves.

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