How corrections officers can deal with stress on the job

In this expert interview, a police psychologist offers tips on how to deal with the stress that inevitably comes with being a corrections officer.


Ellen Kirschman has been a police and public safety psychologist for over 30 years, along with being the best-selling author of I Love a Cop.  After agreeing to sit down to an interview, here are Ellen’s thoughts on living a correctional officer’s life, dealing with stress, and much more.

To contact Ellen, visit her website, www.ellenkirschman.com.

Q: What are some things people are not taught when they join this line of work?

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Ellen Kirschman: In my humble opinion, there isn’t sufficient preparation for dealing with the emotional challenges of the job. Self-care protects officers, and is as important a tool as a bulletproof vest.

Correctional officers are way more likely to see and do things that will harm them emotionally than they are to get physically hurt. And they need to know the signs and symptoms of serious stress, when to ask for help for themselves and their families and where to get it. And they need to have their concerns about confidentiality addressed up front.

Corrections is not a job, it's an identity. There's lots of pressure to conform and it comes from inside and outside the department. Finding your own way and not losing yourself or your family is rarely talked about.

In addition, I think it's important to talk to new officers about how to manage their careers, their finances and organizational stress. Organizational stress affects more officers than line of duty stress in every study I know.

Q: As we know, the job wears people down.  Why is this?  And what can be done about it?

EK: Corrections officers and other first responders see more terrible things in the first few years of their careers than most of us see in a lifetime. Corrections work changes people, for good and for bad. I have chapters titled "Growing Old in a Young Person's Profession” in I Love a Cop and Counseling Cops.   

There are several distinct stages that officers go through during their careers. Each phase has a distinct challenge, from mastering the basic skills, managing new found power and confidence, to dealing with compassion fatigue, an aging body, boredom, and the prospect of retirement.

Q: What would you say are some useful stress management tools?

EK: You've heard it before: Motion is lotion, use it or lose it. They are both true.

Exercise is better than almost anything. In fact, exercise appears to help a host of things including mental alertness, resistance to cancer, strong bones, better sleep, and stress management. A total body program would include aerobic exercise (running, walking dancing), resistance training (stretch bands, weight lifting), and flexibility (yoga, stretching). The average, healthy human should have a minimum of 30 minutes per day.

Exercising consistently is like having a part time job, it requires persistence and determination. Do something you love, you'll do it more. Kill two birds with one stone; do it with friends and family. If it's fun, you'll be consistent and they'll love you for it.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is a big problem for first responders and shift workers. No one thinks clearly or feels happy when they're sleepy. Practice good sleep hygiene. Go to sleep at a routine time. Bedrooms should be dark, quiet, cool and pleasant places dedicated to sleep and sex. Invest in room-darkening curtains, white noise machines, earplugs and eye masks. TV can stimulate the brain and interfere with sleep. During work, try taking power naps of no longer than 30 minutes.

Use caffeine to stimulate alertness during the first half of your shift but avoid it during the last half. Caffeine stays in your system 6-8 hours, and will interfere with sleep.

Loneliness has been found to be the health equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Try to balance solitude with an active social life, one that includes friends outside of work.

Q: How does one deal with the constant negative factor of the job and what are the best ways to not let it affect your personal life?

EK: Counter balance the negative aspects of law enforcement with positive activities outside the job.

Keep your non-enforcement friends. Dedicate yourself to something bigger than the soap opera of your own life. Have goals both on and off the job. Vary your interests. Curiosity of one of the finest human traits. Don't be a "usta," as police psychologist Dr. Kevin Gilmartin says. Monitor yourself. When was the last time you did something you used to love doing like travel, skiing, fishing and so on?

Stay away from whiners and malcontents. If someone doesn't add to your life, they'll drain it. Be clear about what you can control and what you can't control. Nobody controls his or her boss. Don't put all your eggs in one basket, especially the work basket where you have little control.

Q: What is your best advice for someone who is being spread thin?  (Maybe long hours, court, overtime, minimal sleep, feeling guilty being away from family)

EK: Some of this comes with the territory and may be temporary. When the demand goes up at work try to reduce demand in your life elsewhere, but don't cheat your family.

Ask for their support and be sure to acknowledge their contribution. Rain checks work, but only if you follow through. Use technology to stay in touch.

But be warned, kids need quantity time to have quality time.

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