Employee burnout can occur in any career, and corrections professionals are especially at risk of burnout. This burnout can exist in different forms. It can include officers who:
- No longer place the effort into the job that they once did
- Develop unhealthy stress coping strategies due to feeling the symptoms of burnout
- Resign or retire early due to discontentment with the job
Burnout can lead to health problems due to the physical and emotional stress associated with burnout. For instance, prison guards can suffer problems such as obesity, insomnia, depression, and heart problems, including cardiovascular disease.
Stress Is an Inevitable Part of Working in Corrections
Working in corrections is naturally a stressful job. Corrections officers are locked into a correctional facility with inmates, and those officers have the responsibility to maintain constant order within the institution.
Working in a prison or jail can be extremely dangerous. Corrections officers know that while they manage multiple responsibilities and tasks throughout a shift, inmates often have little to do but study the routine and actions of corrections officers. Consequently, corrections officers must always remain highly alert throughout their shift to avoid life-threatening injuries.
This need for hypervigilance can lead to burnout. According to Benchmark Analytics, corrections officers experience a nonfatal incident rate of 216 for every 1,000 officers.
Benchmark also notes that these factors lead to burnout among corrections officers:
- An inability to control assignments
- An Inability to control work hours
- A poor work-life balance
- A lack of perceived support from peers and management
A study by the Department of Justice showed that approximately 15% of law enforcement officers experience PTSD. But among corrections officers, the number of officers with PTSD jumps to 53.4%, according to researchers in a Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine article.
Taking Steps to Mitigate Burnout in Corrections
Ideally, a properly managed prison will be fully staffed, not overcrowded. It will have clear, concise policies and procedures that guide officers throughout their shifts.
Unfortunately, these ideal conditions within correctional facilities do not always occur. Often, prisoners are violent, and there may be a high level of gang activity that increases the risk of physical danger for both staff and inmates. Similarly, poor management can lead to some ambiguity on how officers should perform their daily tasks.
But no matter how well a prison is managed, there will always be officer stress that leads to burnout. It is essential to make plans to mitigate corrections officer stress and minimize the impact of burnout.
Peer Support for Officers Is Helpful
An effective peer support program within prisons is useful. If prison officers experience stress associated with a traumatic work event – such as being attacked or responding to violence within a prison – they may be more willing to speak with a peer support officer. Similarly, peer counseling can be equally useful if officers experience personal problems outside of the workplace, such as a divorce or a death in the family.
A trusted peer support officer understands the unique stressors of the corrections field. That officer should also have the training to provide resources and support to other officers who confide in them. To improve correction officers’ mental health, FHE Health recommends reducing the shifts of burned-out corrections officers and offering more on-site mental health support.
Finding Other Ways to Cope with Stress Is Useful in Avoiding Burnout
For stressed corrections officers, finding pleasant hobbies and social activities outside of the corrections setting is useful in reducing stress. Because many prisons are short-staffed, corrections officers may put in a lot of overtime and that detracts from their ability to relax outside of work.
Having friends outside of the corrections field is also vital. Talking with friends enables prison officers to hear how people solve problems in other career fields, which may be different than how problems within correctional facilities are solved.
The corrections field is not right for everyone, and stress impacts people differently. If a corrections officer experiences burnout to the point where that officer’s personality and enjoyment of life has significantly changed, it may be time for a career change if all other steps for mitigating burnout have failed.
For corrections officers who experience mental health problems related to job-related burnout, there are various resources available. An officer can seek out Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or use the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.