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By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Many correctional officers struggle with a series of challenges in their personal lives, and recent studies shed light on the extent of the problem. Compared to the average of all other occupations, correctional officers spend 40 percent more days away from work due to injury or illness. They have a 30 percent higher divorce rate and a suicide rate twice that of the general population. The life expectancy of a correctional officer is 12-16 years shorter than individuals in other occupations.
Despite these grim statistics, health and wellness has not been a popular topic in the correctional field. But if this year’s theme at the Pennsylvania Association of Probation, Parole and Corrections (PAPPC)/Middle Atlantic States Correctional Association (MASCA) conference is any indicator, correctional officers and administrators are starting to take health and wellness more seriously. This year, all the presentations of this three-day conference focused on Correctional Employee Wellness – Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Wellness is an issue that impacts everyone in corrections. “No matter how professional you are, no matter how hard you steel yourself, working with violent offenders and people with mental illness will take a toll on you as a professional and as a person,” said Dr. Joel Núñez, a New Jersey licensed clinical psychologist, who gave a keynote address entitled “Self-care isn’t Selfish.”
Burnout is a Serious Matter
Núñez discussed the epidemic of officers suffering from burnout—when someone reaches physical or emotional exhaustion due to prolonged stress or frustration. Reaching this level is dangerous to one’s health. “Exposure to burnout is correlated with severe health problems,” Núñez said. “It also causes things like a reduction in commitment to the organization, absenteeism, an increase in attrition rates and a reduction in productivity.”
Burnout needs to be taken seriously by individuals, but also by organizations. In order to understand burnout and give officers tools to prevent and address it, it’s important to realize that burnout is a continuum, not a category. “Many people operate like burnout is a category that you can check ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but it’s not like that,” Núñez said. “Burnout is a continuum and you can find yourself at different points, even in the very same day. You can start out feeling energetic and optimistic yet by the middle of the day, you might be depleted and exhausted.”
Are you Suffering from Burnout?
Burnout can take hold of individuals and affect their ability to function. Núñez discussed four primary characteristics of burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion: This is the symptom category that’s associated with physical ailments like diabetes, strokes, heart attacks and emotional illnesses like depression and anxiety. Research shows that even if an officer isn’t obese, isn’t a smoker, and has no history of major health problems, they can show significant physical and mental health problems because they’re burdened under the weight of emotional exhaustion, said Núñez.
- Depersonalization: Individuals suffering from burnout often show increased cynicism towards the world. They start to become emotionally depleted, begin to withdraw from others, and are short-tempered with loved ones. Someone who is suffering from burnout and distancing themselves from others often begins to depersonalize others and see them as less than human. This is especially dangerous because they can actually bring harm to others. When a person shows these signs, they are often completely unaware of their impact on others.
- Diminished efficacy: When someone is suffering from burnout they start believing their work no longer has an impact. When this starts happening, individuals need to take a step back and realize that their attitude, body language, demeanor and behavior are likely having an impact on others and leading to their inability to be effective in their job.
- Impaired insight: This characteristic of burnout is the most destructive, said Núñez. As a psychologist, he said the most devastating symptom of mental illness is impairment of insight—the illness tells people they’re not ill. But such impairment of insight isn’t restricted to the mentally ill – it can happen to anyone, including those suffering from burnout. “We’re good at lying to ourselves and rationalizing or justifying our bad behavior,” he said. “When we become depleted from burnout we can do the most damage because our insight is impaired.”
How to Improve Your Outlook and Prevent Burnout
Officers must commit purposefully and intently to self-care to prevent burnout, said Núñez. “It isn’t the responsibility of your loved ones or your colleagues or your workplace to make sure you’re well – it’s up to you,” he emphasized. Asking yourself how you’re doing and being honest about the answer is a good place to start. If the answer is that you’re not doing well, seek out help.
Núñez recommended some actions people can take to prevent burnout:
Realize You Only Have So Much to Give
Humans are economic beings, said Núñez, and they have a limited amount of resources. “One of the most important things we can do for ourselves is recognize our limitations. We have to allocate our resources to things that are within our control.”
This leads to another important element, especially for those in corrections: Know what you can and cannot change. “I’ve seen very intelligent people engage in the fruitless pursuit of trying to change people they cannot change,” said Núñez. Whether it’s the behavior of offenders or agency policies, officers must acknowledge the things that are beyond their control. “That means don’t spend an iota of your limited resources on things you know you can’t change,” he said.
Improve Your Attitude
However, one thing we all have ultimate control over is our attitude. “Many of us are convinced that other people are responsible for our attitude,” he said. “You often hear people say that what someone did really pissed them off. But what’s really happening is that they’re allowing themselves to be pissed off by what another person did. It may seem like just a semantic difference, but it can make a world of difference when you think about it that way.”
Núñez also recommends having an attitude of gratitude. And it’s more than just a catchy phrase. Making a conscious decision to be grateful for what you have and take on an optimistic attitude “can help inoculate you against issues that lead to burnout,” he said. Also, align yourself with others who have a positive attitude and steer clear of those who bring negativity.
People are often much nicer to others than they are to themselves. “I am my own worst critic,” admitted Núñez. “That voice can be paralyzing. One of the strongest competencies we can arm ourselves with in our journey toward self-care is to practice self-kindness,” he said. Be gentle with yourself and don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes. Understand where you can improve without punishing yourself severely.
Savor Your Experiences (put down your phone!)
Take the time to enjoy and appreciate the good things in your life, but don’t feel the need to always document it. “We all have these devices in our pockets that connect us to the world,” said Núñez holding up a smartphone. “Using it in excess is a problem. Why are you documenting every experience? It’s keeping you from experiencing your own experiences! One way we don’t realize we’re sliding down that continuum of burnout is when we resort to documenting every part of our day and not actually experiencing it,” he said.
If you’re in the depths of burnout and impaired insight, how will you know you’re there? You must enlist the help of others, said Núñez. “You must authorize others to tell you those difficult truths because there will be times that you will not know when you’ve become dangerous to yourself or others,” he said. Talk to someone you trust about the realities of burnout and give them permission to talk to you when they see these signs.
To contact the author, please send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu.
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