Working in any environment has the potential to cause us stress. Working in a correctional environment has unique challenges and obstacles that are particularly primed to induce stress in employees. Regardless of which department you work in, whether you are a Correctional Officer, Kitchen Staff, CORCAN Supervisor, Mental Health Services Provider, or Nurse, we face unique challenges when working with our population. What we often forget is the impact this can have on ourselves, and the resulting impact on our personal well-being, family life, and physical health.
Stress is a phenomenon that we often shrug off and assume we should just be able to handle. However, the impact stress can have in our everyday lives is extensive and should not be underestimated or ignored. Its effects can be seen, often unknowingly, in our emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and physical symptoms. It can make us irritable at work and at home, negative in our thinking, and aggressive in our behaviour. The potential resulting physical symptoms are also extensive, and include but are not limited to headaches, stomach aches, nausea, muscle pain, tension, fatigue, loss of sleep, rapid heart rates, shallow breathing, feelings of being choked, etc.
The important thing in battling stress is making sure we recognize it for what it is, and improve our ability to cope. There are various ways to cope with workplace stress. When possible, it may be beneficial to switch tasks and work on something else or in another role for a period of time. Taking regular breaks, going out for lunch, and socializing, can also be positive ways to cope with workplace stress.
Too often we forget to care for ourselves and eat at our desk, which does not allow yourself the time you need to recharge and complete a full day of work effectively. Surrounding yourself with positive co-workers and friends can also be a great source of support at the workplace. We all work in a stressful environment, and the more that we can support each other, the better off we all will be and the smoother the work will go.
You have probably heard about other individual coping techniques that can also improve our ability to cope with stress. These include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and other relaxation exercises. There are many self-help books and CDs that are now available to guide inexperienced individuals through these types of exercises to benefit their well being.
Other important tips to combat stress include eating right, getting sleep, and exercising. It is often amazing the impact these things can have on our emotional wellbeing without us realizing it. An obvious example is caffeine. Many people, myself included, drink copious amounts of coffee a day, whether it be for the taste or just to get through the day. However, caffeine is a stimulant, and can mimic the physical sensation of anxiety. You may have noticed this in yourself if you had just one too many cups that day, and found yourself a little jittery and on edge. There is also the cyclical impact that coffee can have on our wellbeing, as the more coffee you drink in the day, the worse your sleep will be. With poorer sleep, you may be inclined to drink more coffee to combat the fatigue, creating a vicious cycle.
In general, getting a good night's sleep can have benefits for your emotional and physical wellbeing. There are many tips for improving your sleep in addition to limiting your caffeine intake, including establishing a regular routine, using your bed only for sleep (i.e., don't read or play games on your phone in bed), not watching the clock, and not stressing yourself out about not being able to get to sleep. This is another time when those relaxation strategies may come in handy.
Exercise is another great way to help cope with stress. This can be going to the gym outside of work, taking a walk or working out during your lunch break, or any other way you can fit some physical activity into your routine. This is part of the benefit of the organized activities such as soccer, boot camp, and yoga that are offered at various institutions. These activities promote positive social interactions among staff and provide physical activity to break up a day of work. Exercise has the added benefits of providing a physical release of built-up tension, as well as the release of endorphins, those positive feel-good chemicals that are produced through physical activity. Engaging in any activity outside of work that gives you pleasure, be it a hobby, a spa day, a massage, or a drink with a friend, can also help to combat the negative impact of stress.
Overall, the main message is that we need to be open to acknowledging that we come to work every day to a stressful environment, and that this will inevitably have an impact on our own wellbeing. It is therefore important for our health and for our ability to successfully complete our jobs that we monitor our stress levels and take proactive steps to combat it. There is always the potential for stress to become debilitating, and in that circumstance there are many resources to reach out to, including your local Employee Assistance Program representatives. It's important that we realize that everyone experiences stress, and we all need to reach out for help from a friend, partner, or professional at some point to prevent it from having a detrimental impact on our lives.