For those looking in from the outside it would appear that most correctional staff are coping and functioning well. They attend work and carry out their duties to the expected high standards and appear to continue on in their daily lives unscathed. Most of these individuals, on the surface, appear to be managing well, but some are struggling in silence.
Correctional staff work in an environment where incidents occur at an equal or higher rate than those faced by first responders in the community. They are subject to and witness traumatic events on a frequent basis - events that many individuals in the community will likely never see and many cannot imagine. It has been determined that staff not directly involved in an incident can also suffer from vicarious trauma resulting from hearing or reading about incidents and traumatic events. All staff in the environment are susceptible to burn-out, compassion fatigue, and workplace stress injuries at an alarmingly high rate.
Mental health in the workplace and workplace stress injuries are subjects that, until recent years, have largely been avoided as topics of discussion. Recent discussion appears to recognize that more must be done to assist with preventing and dealing with the negative impacts on correctional workers’ mental health. Individuals from all levels are starting to come forward and advocate for improved services and supports. The cost of not investing in supports and services is high on a financial and productivity level for the organization, and on an individual level to workers’ mental health and well-being. In recent years there have been resources put into place in an attempt to address this issue, but it is evident that we have room to improve.
Some individuals working in the correctional environment are experiencing depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, relationship issues, health complications, feelings of confusion, irritability, decreased life satisfaction, lack of motivation or energy, substance abuse issues, and thoughts of suicide/self-harm at significantly higher rates compared to individuals working in other occupations. In this demanding environment, individuals at every level are sometimes too preoccupied or overwhelmed to notice the struggles of those around them. Those that do notice attempt to assist and support their peers as best they can, but are often unsure of how to help or where to direct them to go for adequate assistance.
The correctional environment houses individuals who have been deemed too high of a risk to remain in the community. On a daily basis, officers place their lives in danger for the safety and security of their community. They are threatened; exposed to stories of violence, crimes and suffering; witness and are subject to verbal and physical assaults; and also respond when a critical incident takes place within the institution. At the same time they are responsible for ensuring the well-being and safety of the individuals who are a potential threat to their own personal safety; are subject to investigations should an offender take or have their life taken; and often scrutinized for each action taken should something go wrong. Due to the environment, Correctional Officers are often functioning at a heightened level of vigilance, which is important for their job and personal safety; however, this places a great toll on their physical and mental health.
The correctional environment has an impact on staff working in all professions (Parole Officers, Mental Health Services, Health Care, Programs, Management and all other areas). They spend a significant amount of time reading detailed documentation of crimes committed, listening to traumatic stories, and witnessing emotional suffering. Staff also witness incidents, injuries, and are sometimes subject to threats and assaults. All staff working in the correctional environment are at higher risk of developing compassion fatigue, burnout, and PTSD in comparison to the general population.
As well, recently there have been a lot of changes and uncertainty within the correctional environment. Funding continues to decrease as responsibilities, expectations, and demands increase. The amount of time staff have to check in with each other, engage in self-care, or have the opportunity to participate in activities that promote a positive work environment have become negligible. The correctional environment does not contain many of the recommended components of a work environment that fosters employee mental health and well-being.
As noted above, most individuals are not coming forward or seeking assistance. There are several reasons for this. The previous mentality was that correctional staff were expected to not be impacted by their work as it is “part of their job.” The literature shows this is not a realistic expectation of any human being; seeking help is not associated with a lack of strength or suitability for the position. These reactions are normal reactions to abnormal events and not indicative of weakness.
There is still a great deal of stigma associated with the discussion of mental health issues and workplace stress injuries. Some are afraid of appearing “weak”; many feel they are expected to be the “strong ones” and, as a result, suffer in silence. Many are concerned what others will think or are not comfortable talking about these issues. Some do not seek help because of the limited resources available, lack of knowledge on where to turn and the difficulties experienced when attempting to obtain assistance. Sometimes financial obligations cause staff to continue trying to “suck it up” and keep going, as they are required to support themselves and/or their families and do not have many options that would assist in this area. In some cases it is very difficult to obtain financial assistance and support, and many have had to struggle to prove their injuries were caused by the workplace. Some have already used their sick leave in an attempt to maintain or rebuild their mental health and do not have the leave required to tide them through until they are able to receive any form of disability. As with any injury, the longer an individual waits for it to be treated, the more severe the injury becomes.
There have been supports and resources put into place in an attempt to assist with the issues discussed above. There are peer support teams (CISM/EAP) that volunteer and are trained to educate staff on the potential impacts of the environment, self-care, and assist with connecting to outside services if required. There are also attempts to assist employees in the workplace through accommodations and return to work programs. The office of conflict management, unions, and labour relations are other resources available. Although there has been progress in terms of services and resources available, more are required. Providing services by mental health professionals who are familiar with the impacts of the correctional environment and are competent in providing interventions to assist with recovery is paramount for the success of an Employee Assistance Program for correctional staff. This is an area in which we are currently lacking. Also, providing training and education to new recruits and staff on the potential impacts of the environment and strategies to manage those impacts would be an effective way to build resilience.
There is no doubt that many are attempting to find ways to improve supports and services for correctional staff to reduce the negative impacts of the environment. It is going to require the efforts and assistance of individuals at all levels and areas to make a difference. The support and initial investments from decision makers and management, as well as the cooperation and efforts from staff, is required. Staff working in correctional environments are generally slow to trust; having individuals they are familiar with advocating and encouraging communication on this subject is vital.
For those of you who are struggling right now, I want you to know that you are not alone. There are many others that are going through similar things and are feeling just as you are. It’s never too late to make a change, and any small change has a great ripple effect. There are also many of us that are aware and will not stop until we find better ways to help. You matter and we care. Thank you for the work you do and the sacrifices you make.