How corrections officers can balance home life and work

A police psychologist offers her insight on how corrections officers can best balance their home life (family) and their work life


Ellen Kirschman is 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: To deal with the job, we must suppress our normal emotions at work, so how does one allow their normal emotions back when off-duty?

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Ellen Kirschman: Create a way to shift gears between home and work. Pick a tangible cue to remind you that you are now Mommy or Daddy, not officer so-and-so. For example, when you slam your locker door or when the garage door at home goes up.

This is important. Corrections officers need two sets of interpersonal skills: one for work and one for home. Skills that make an effective officer such as command presence, quick action, emotional control, can backfire with your family.

Be especially careful of sarcasm and contempt. They ruin relationships and destroy trust. Your family doesn't want a cop at home, they want someone who is accessible, patient, and open minded.

Q: What does failing to switch gears when off work do to one’s family life?

EK: Most corrections officers have two families: their work family and their family at home. You need both. Don't make your family play second fiddle to the job.

The job is fickle. If you want your family to be loyal, you have to take their needs into consideration. They married you, not the job.  

They have to put up with a lot. Don't make it more difficult by acting as though, because you do important work, you or the job are more important.

Q: Why do we easily fall into not shedding our work identity when we are off-duty?

EK: Some folks have a tough time shedding their work identities because they are hyper vigilant and unable to relax in non-work environments. Hyper vigilance can be the result of untreated trauma, over-training, or an exaggerated sense responsibility fueled by the belief that the world is a dangerous place and everyone in it is out to get you or someone you love.

Distinguishing between alertness and hyper vigilance can be difficult. Ask your family. They'll tell you if you're overly restrictive or can't engage with them in public because you're too busy scanning your environment for threats.

A fear-driven life affects the people who love you as well as your own mental and physical well-being. Your family wants you to be accessible to them. That can't happen if you act like a cop at home.

Constantly being on the alert affects your health. It's like driving around with your foot on the clutch; sooner or later, the clutch will wear out. You can replace a clutch more easily than you can fix high blood pressure or a lost relationship.

There are other reasons why some can't switch gears off duty. Self-inflation is an occupational hazard for law enforcement. Some people enjoy the sense of power that comes with the uniform and are reluctant to let it go, even when they don't need it.

As I said before, for some people corrections work is an identity, not a job. They don't know who they are, what they think, or what they want to do in life when they're not in role. It is dangerous to be so over-identified with work. Everyone is at risk for losing a job.

If you don't know what makes life worth living beyond the job, start looking.

Q: How do we trust people in our personal life when we learn through the job that we cannot trust those we are dealing with?

EK: Corrections officers make sampling errors.

Dr. Gilmartin says corrections officers judge 90 percent of the world by the 10 percent they contact on the job. If I judged nearly 900,000 law enforcement professionals by the statistical fraction I see in my counseling practice, I would have a very distorted view of law enforcement as a whole.

Reading people quickly is a work tool, one that corrections officers need to stay safe.  But, it is not effective in one's private life. Better to be skeptical than cynical.

Q: Why is it important to have a personal life and hobbies?

EK: Corrections officers need to intentionally fill their home lives with positive activities and positive people in order to off-set or neutralize the constant stream of negativity they encounter at work, both on the street and in their organizations.

To put all your eggs in the work basket is risky. All it takes is one injury or one mistake and the job is history.

Start from day one to plan for retirement, not just financially. Nurture your family and friends and develop interests beyond work. You'll have plenty of years ahead of you after you retire.

When my colleague Dr. Joel Fay retired from law enforcement after 36 years, it wasn't a huge loss because his life was built on many pillars: family, bike riding, and work as a psychologist.

Q: What is healthy in sharing about work to your spouse?  And what is not healthy to share?

EK: It's not a matter of telling all or telling nothing. Generally speaking, your family wants to know when you walk in the door with "that face" on, are you upset with them or is it something at work?

They don't need to know about maggots or mutilated bodies, they do need to know that you've had a terrible day at work and saw something you never thought you'd ever see or did something you thought you'd never have to do.

I understand why corrections officers want to protect their families from the things they encounter. But try not to draw too bright a line between home and work. Your family is reading you. If you are irritable or withdrawn because of something at work, unless you tell them differently they will assume they're at fault.

On days when you've had enough and want to leave work in the office, just say so. Ask for a break. Solicit your family to distract you from your troubles by doing something pleasant together. Promise that when you feel better, you'll tell them what's going on.

Get your family together and make some ground rules about talking.  Everyone's opinion counts, not just yours. When should you talk? Most first responders are problem solvers and don't want to be hit with problems the minute they come in the door. What should you talk about?

If you're married to another first responder they may want all the gory details. If not, what don't they want to hear? What should your kids know about your job? Every family is different. The important thing is that you have this conversation.

Q: How does one make the most of family time when they are trying to make up for all the hours, shifts, nights gone from home and at work?

EK: Be sure to ask them about their lives. What did they do while you were gone? Make rain checks for those events you have to miss.

Use electronics, send email and text messages telling your kids that you love them and miss them. But beware, for kids especially, quality time requires quantity time.

Try to initiate activities rather than wait for your family to suggest things to do. You'll get extra credit. Spend time alone with your spouse and with each of your children.

Dr. Kevin Gilmartin suggests making dates with your spouse and family and writing them down on a calendar. It's easier to keep dates you've made rather than to spontaneously think up something to do. Especially when you're tired.

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