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Correctional workers and stress: providing mental health support.

A correctional facility is only as strong and secure as its workers. Why, then, does corrections seem to be overlooking questions related to the health of the very people who are responsible for the safety and security of the institution? For example, one can find several articles on suicide risk in inmates, but very few about suicide risk in correctional employees. (1) According to author Charles Fix, "Correctional employees constantly are exposed to an environment that is patently stressful, providing care, custody and control for a population that is held unwillingly, unhappily and often, uncooperatively."(2) Working in such a setting may increase stress, which in turn could increase rates of burnout, turnover and absenteeism. Understanding and securing the health of correctional employees is essential for the effective management of institutions, and for maintaining effective custody of individuals who can pose a danger to the rest of society. This is especially important in a global society where costs are increasing and budgets are decreasing.

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Factors Effecting Stress in Correctional Settings

Research suggests that job characteristics (e.g., job involvement, perceptions of danger related to the job, stress related to one's role) are more greatly associated with correctional employees' stress than personal factors. (3) Job involvement, according to Paullay, Alliger and Stone-Romero's article examining the construct validity of measures, which assess job involvement and work centrality, refers to "the degree to which one is cognitively preoccupied with, engaged in, and concerned with one's present job. (4) Moreover, according to Lambert, Hogan and Cluse-Tolar, correctional employees reported significantly lower levels of stress when provided with job performance feedback. (5) For more officers, organizational factors are reported as major stressors, including inconsistency with respect to rule enforcement and discipline, as opposed to the danger related to the job, according to preliminary results from a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study. (6)

There is also evidence that organizational structure affects emotional burnout of correctional employees more so than personal factors (e.g., education, race and tenure), although supervisory status was significantly related to burnout when supervisors reported greater burnout than staff not in supervisory positions. (7) Examples of significant aspects of organizational structure include opportunities for promotion, input into decision-making and instrumental communication. Increases in these areas are related to decreases in burnout, while formalization of rules is positively correlated with burnout. (8) Stress may be related to organizational matters (e.g., emotional dissonance, task control, role conflict) rather than the time correctional workers spend in contact with inmates, which was actually negatively related to work stress, according to one study. (9) However, this contradicts the results of Lambert et. al's study, which did identify a positive correlation between contact with inmates and emotional burnout. (10)

Stress and Suicide

Stress in extreme cases may lead people to contemplate suicide. The suicide rate among correctional officers in New Jersey was reportedly twice as high as that of police officers and the general population, and the problem of such suicides is acknowledged to exist not only in other states, but outside of the U.S. as well. (11.) The presence of increased suicide risk among correctional officers compared with other working-age individuals has been identified by Stack and Tsoudis. Furthermore, one could argue that any correctional worker, not just officers, are at a potentially higher risk for suicide than workers in the general population. After all, they are exposed to the same environment as their correctional officer peers. In fact, results of one study indicated that, in comparison to officers, caseworkers suffered greater burnout. (12.) Results of another study did not identify significantly different levels of stress and health problems related to the job associated with stress among treatment staff compared to correctional officers. (13)

Stress and Gender

Another issue that deserves attention is one's gender in relation to the job of a correctional worker. One might imagine a gender-related difference in level of stress due to a male-dominated work environment. However, according to author Marie L. Griffin, there was no significant difference between male and female officers with respect to job stress. (14) However, Griffin noted differences in the sources of stress. Age and tenure contributed to stress among females, but not among males. That is, younger age and longer duration of employment was associated with greater stress among females. However, in terms of work environment variables studied, males and females exhibited some similarities (perceived co-worker support, safety on the job and organizational support for employees were associated with lower levels of stress, while conflict between work and family was associated with greater levels of stress for both genders). Two variables--perceived quality of supervision and organizational support for policies concerning equal treatment--affected stress levels for males, with a negative correlation for the former variable and a positive correlation for the latter, but neither had any significant effect on level of stress for females. According to another study by Armstrong and Griffin, gender was one of the variables that predicted health concerns, with women likely to endorse health concerns. (15) Still others have reported that female gender, compared to male gender, was associated with greater reported job stress. (16)

Personality Evaluations

Administrators could argue that employees' stress is associated with employees' personality traits or a possible history of mental illness. Such a claim would support the need for a comprehensive interview process for job candidates. For example, certain law enforcement organizations require that candidates undergo a thorough psychological evaluation to examine the presence of psychopathology. Morgan and Smith argue that a personality evaluation should be an element of hiring an effective correctional employee, especially considering the literature that supports associations between certain personality traits and "job-related behavior." (17) Other important elements should be structured behavioral interviewing, realistic job previews, evaluating the judgment of a job candidate, and employee turnover prediction, according to Morgan and Smith. Administrators would additionally benefit from continual performance evaluations oi their employees to ensure that they are performing up to standard. Researchers developed an evaluation instrument in correctional institutions in order to evaluate effective and ineffective job-related behavior, as well as interaction with inmates. It is the Correctional Personnel Rating Scale, (18)

Staff Support Programs in Corrections

Correctional institutions should promote the mental health of their employees, regardless of the source of the stress they experience. Several organizations provide the Employee Assistance Program which offers employer-sponsored programs designed to improve employees' job performance by assisting them with resolving personal difficulties. Typically, certain staff or outside professionals provide counseling services to employees. One such program was discussed by Carrie Sauter as it pertained to health and wellness for correctional employees in Maryland. (19) Also, a Critical Incident Stress Management Program in Pennsylvania provides "crisis interventions and educational processes" in crisis situations, such as when one is the victim of a hostage situation or in the event of the death of an employee while on the job. (20) Such Critical Incident Stress Debriefing teams are used in several correctional agencies to address trauma for both workers and their families with the idea that one's fellow co-workers are effective sources of support and should thus be included in these teams. (21) Administrations may also benefit from regular educational seminars that promote psychological well-being. For example, McCraty et. al reported on the effectiveness of a two-day program that improved physical and psychological functioning among correctional employees. (22) The program consists of five training modules: risk factors (identification and interpretation of, and their relationship to health), freeze-frame (emotion-refocusing), coherent communication (effective communication skills), power tools for inner quality (emotional restructuring and neutralizing distress) and workplace applications (application of modules to the workplace). McCraty et. al found that employees who attended this program demonstrated significant reductions in arterial pressure; systolic and diastolic blood pressure; cholesterol (total, low-density lipoprotein, and total cholesterol/high-density lipoprotein ratio); glucose; dehydroepiandrosterone; and mean heart rate. However, for heart rate variability/autonomic function, increases in the low frequency/high frequency ratio were noted. Reductions in psychological distress were also noted in addition to improvements in other psychological variables (e.g., motivation, fatigue, hostility, anger, speed and impatience). This program was believed to result in savings in health care costs. In addition, Wells argued for the use of stress-reduction programs which would, according to this author, result in monetary savings, improvements in worker morale, and increases in workplace safety. (23)

Using Research to Prevent Suicide

The corrections field must combine research and practice, recognizing the value of both, to aid in suicide prevention of staff. In an article discussing evidence-based practices, Innes cited the dependence on outside researchers and funding as a barrier to research in corrections. (24) The argument presented is that research needs to be incorporated into regular functioning within corrections, to better integrate research and practice. In addition, Magaletta, Mclearen and Morgan argued that research mandates are needed for mental health professionals as one means to "advancing correctional mental health research." (25)

Regarding the importance of using research as a means to explore suicidality among staff in corrections, future researchers may benefit from evaluating evidence-based hiring strategies, and the way in which such strategies are associated with employees' job performance, burnout and turnover. Certainly, such research must also consider certain factors that could affect the relations among hiring techniques and outcomes. Such factors may include gender, ethnicity, marital discord or educational level. Future researchers may also benefit from considering the role of culture in corrections. For example, would culture affect employee burnout or the quality of staff interactions with inmates? Furthermore, any future research on correctional employees should consider the response style. In one study, Cheek and Di Stefano Miller reported that the correctional officers participating in the study "denied their stress and the problems it caused them, though objective indices of physical and marital problems told a different story." (26) Therefore, future research should evaluate response style, including the tendency to underreport, as a confounding factor in establishing empirical findings. Underreporting would be especially salient for studies that probe for sensitive information, such as those which examine stress or suicide risk among staff.

Conclusion

Recognition of risk factors that may lead to suicidal should be given greater attention. In order to give such attention, the undertaking of research in correctional institutions that specifically explore risk factors at the institutional level on a voluntary basis is recommended. Ensuring staff mental health is an important endeavor, not just for the needs of each individual, but for the functioning and security of the institution. Determining risk factors of suicidally in correctional workers can help identify which areas need to be addressed and the way in which those areas can be addressed, whether it is by the implementation of psychological assessments or the greater emphasis on EAP services. Unfortunately, suicide is an occurrence among correctional workers. The reality is that it is also a problem that can be addressed.

ENDNOTES

(1) Stack. Steven J. and Olga Tsoudis. 1997. Suicide risk among correctional officers: A logistic regression analysis. Archives of Suicide Research, 3(3): 183-186.

Tudor, Caterina Spinaris. March 8, 2010. Stopping correctional worker suicide. Retrieved on Oct. 3, 2010. from http://www.corrections.com/articles/23719-stopping-correctionaI-worker-suicide.

(2) Fix, Charles. 2001. Critical Incident Stress Management Program: Responding to the needs of correctional staff in Pennsylvania. Corrections Todays 63(6):94-96.

(3) Lambert, Eric G., Nancy L Hogan and Terry Cluse-Tolar. 2007. The job is killing me: The impact of job characteristics on correctional staff job stress. Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice, 3(2): 117-142.

(4) Paullay, Irina M., George M. Alliger and Eugene F. Stone-Romero. 1994. Construct validation of two instruments designed to measure job involvement and work centrality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(2):224-228.

(5) Lambert, Eric 0., Nancy L. Hogan and Terry Cluse-Tolar. 2007. The job is killing me: The impact of job characteristics on correctional staff job stress. Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice, 3(2): 117-142.

(6) Wells, Doris T. 2003. Reducing stress for officers and their families. Corrections Today, 65(2):24-25.

(7) Lambert, Eric G., Nancy L. Hogan and Shanhe Jiang. 2010. A preliminary examination of the relationship between organisational structure and emotional burnout among correctional staff. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 49(2): 125-146.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Tewksbury, Richard and George E. Higgins. 2006. Prison staff and work stress: The role of organizational and emotional influences. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 30(2):247-266.

(10) Lambert, Eric G., Nancy L. Hogan and Shanhe Jiang. 2010. A preliminary examination of the relationship between organisational structure and emotional burnout among correctional staff. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 49(2): 125-146.

(11) Tudor, Caterina Spinaris. March 8, 2010. Stopping correctional worker suicide. Retrieved on Oct. 3, 2010, from http://www.corrections.com/articles/23719-stopping-correctional-worker-suicide.

(12) Carlson, Joseph R. and George Thomas. 2006. Burnout among prison caseworkers and corrections officers. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 43(3): 19-34.

(13) Armstrong, Gaylene 3. and Marie L Griffin. 2004. Does the job matter? Comparing correlates of stress among treatment and correctional staff in prisons. Journal of Criminal Justice, 32(6):577-592.

(14) Griffin, Marie L. 2006. Gender and stress: A comparative assessment of sources of stress among correctional officers. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 22(l):4-25.

(15) Armstrong, Gaylene S. and Marie L Griffin. 2004. Does the job matter? Comparing correlates of stress among treatment and correctional staff in prisons. Journal of Criminal Justice, 32(6):577-592.

(16) Lambert, Eric G., Nancy L Hogan and Shanhe Jiang. 2010. A preliminary examination of the relationship between organisational structure and emotional burnout among correctional staff. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 49(2):125-146.

(17) Morgan and Smith cite the work of Barrack and Mount, 19.91; and Tett, Jackson and Kothstein, 1991 and 1994 in: Morgan, Marcia and Jack E, Smith. 2009. Hiring the right individual for your corrections staff. Corrections Today, 71(4):22-24, 26.

(18) Mitchell, Tom, Gunna J. Yun and Erica Pinkos. 2008. Four-factor structure of the Correctional Personnel Rating Scale. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 50(2):211-223.

(19) Sauter, Carrie. 2001. Health and wellness programs made available to Maryland correctional employees. Corrections Today, 63(6): 110-111.

(20) Fix, Charles. 2001. Critical incident stress management program: Responding to the needs of correctional staff in Pennsylvania. Corrections Today, 63(6):94-96.

(21) Gillan. Thomas. 2001. The correctional officer; One of law enforcement's toughest positions. Corrections Today, 63(6):112-115.

(22) McCraty, Rollin, Mike Atkinson, Lee Lipsenthal and Lourdes Arguelles. 2009. New hope for correctional officers: An innovative program for reducing stress and health risks. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 34(4):251-272.

(23) Wells, Doris T. 2003. Reducing stress for officers and their famines. Corrections Today, 65(2):24-25.

(24) Innes, Christopher A. 2007. Merging research and correctional practice. Corrections Today, 69(6):8,23.

(25) Magaletta, Philip R., Alix M. McLearen and Robert D. Morgan. 2007. Framing evidence for correctional mental heath services. Corrections Today, 69(6):38-40.

(26) Cheek, Frances E. and Marie Di Stefano Miller. 1983. The experience of stress for correction officers: A double-bind theory of correctional stress. Journal of Criminal Justice, 11 (2): 105-120.

Author's Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of either the Federal Bureau of Prisons or Pilgrim Psychiatric Center.

Bonnie-Jean Thurston-Snoha, Ph.D., is a drug abuse program coordinator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Louis Ernesto Mora, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in West Brentwood, N.Y.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Thurston-Snoha, Bonnie-Jean; Mora, Louis Ernesto
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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