A corrections officer is a first responder occupation in every sense of the words. It’s a job that is characterized by the stigma of low status, high stress, and burnout. With high rates of chronic job-related stress, it’s easy to see how corrections officers can feel as trapped as the prisoners they guard. However, when the job is right, a healthy career in corrections is possible when you make tackling stress a priority.

Effects of Stress on First Responders

Correctional officers are daily subject to verbal abuse and life-threatening physical assaults. Inmates use manipulation and intimidation tactics to commit crimes inside the facility or to make prison life tolerable.  Rotating and overtime shifts combine with understaffing and supervisor demands to create excessive amounts of fatigue, irritability, and burnout.  It’s a career that stresses multiple bodily systems that lead to major health issues including heart attack, high blood pressure, ulcers, and more. It’s a career path that wreaks havoc on even the strongest person’s emotional balance and shortens life span. Veteran correctional officers can expect a life expectancy to age 59, as compared with age 77 for the overall U.S. population, according to insurance data.

Rates of PTSD

Most people who work in jails or prisons believe they are immune from emotional stress—that it can’t really be that bad. In fact, 31% of corrections officers will suffer from PTSD, a rate that is comparable to combat veterans, as noted in a study by psychologist, Caterina Spinaris. PTSD is an invisible wound that grows silently over time. Officers don’t realize the impact of severe stress until their normal functioning ability is compromised. Supervisors often notice the impact of stress before their subordinates as detected by sloppy work, careless searches, filthy units, and failure to follow rules. PTSD could be the culprit for subpar work performance.

Potential for Stress-related Addictions

Facing daily hypervigilance and stress causes some corrections officers to seek unhealthy coping strategies such as taking drugs or alcohol to relax and de-stress. Officers aren’t given time to debrief between stressful incidents and may be required to complete paperwork before the incident has even ended. After surviving a shift of chronic stress, officers have trouble transitioning back to their families, where they cannot recount the day’s events. Spinaris’ study also found that people with PTSD used alcohol for coping more than others without the affliction. The officer becomes stuck where there is no outlet for dealing with stress and isn’t able to discuss job-related addictions in any setting.

Approach Health and Wellness Proactively

Those who feel that a job in corrections is right for them can maintain a healthy career by addressing stress proactively. On-the-job positivity goes a long way. Avoid worrying about the next incident which robs you from enjoying the rare moments when things are going well. Off the job, attending regular sessions with a therapist can provide a safe setting where a corrections officer can release feelings and emotions about traumatic events at work. Rather than de-stressing after work at the local bar, make time for healthier outlets like exercise, meditation, fun, or relaxation. Help your body gain the upper hand on stress by giving it the fuel it needs by maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.  Looking forward to enjoying activities outside of prison walls can help a corrections office feel less boxed in.

Mental Health Awareness

Corrections workers should not discount the high rates of suicide risk caused by severe job stress. Professors Steven Stack and Olga Tsoudis of Wayne State University, conducted a study that showed a 39% higher risk of suicide than all other professions combined. In a 2009 study, the New Jersey Police Suicide Task Force identified that corrections officers ended their lives by suicide at twice the rate of police officers. Notice the signs of severe stress including:

  • Emotional numbness
  • Feelings of sadness, frustration or helplessness
  • Recurring feelings of fear and anxiety
  • Anger, tension, and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Reduced interest in activities you formerly enjoyed
  • Wanting to be alone and avoiding others
  • Loss of appetite or eating too much
  • Irregular sleeping patterns
  • Nightmares
  • Headaches, muscle pains, and stomach problems
  • Smoking or increased use of alcohol or drugs

In addition to taking charge of your health, every state has an Employee Assistance Program, so don’t be afraid to ask for help when needed. Seeking help can save your life.

 

Despite the inherent risks of the job, by being aware of job-related stressors and taking steps to keep the mind and body from going into fight or flight mode, a corrections officer career can be healthy and fulfilling.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Christopher

    A well written article of the issues of being a C.O. It’s not a glorified career but it’s one that needs to be filled with strong minded people.

  2. Brian

    15 years as a state correctional officer. Resigning at 190lbs and currently 150lbs. 5’10 43 and am an alcoholic, suffer daily from PTSD. I have been dry for 3 years. And if you keep in good shape you’ll keep the job in good shape. Either or I hated it and have no regrets of leaving that empire of tangible evil. They know who they are. God bless correctional staff. If honestly feels like my friends that still work there are off to war. I can no longer relate to them. The job is not to be taken for granted by the public.

    1. Dana

      9 years as a counselor and feel ruined physically and mentally. Going to save myself and heal — quitting in 2 months. I have heard and seen things I can never erase. Lock them up and never mind the conditions. Secrecy and lies. It is a miracle that there is anyone willing to to serve as a correctional officer. I am the very last person to not recognize a criminal’s dangerousness and inability to become a thinking, feeling, prosocial human being — surely not making excuses for the offenders. Assaults on staff increasing. Public does not seem to care –but they do not know; you would not believe what goes on behind the wall. You, citizen, should care because most of them will be released to live in a town like yours. I hope the offenders who have been threatening harm and assaulting, spitting, throwing feces and exposing themselves aggressively to prison staff find homes in close proximity to the administrators, board members and legislators who turn a blind eye to what goes on in prisons. God bless the men and women who show up for their shift. Some nights there are few cars in the parking lot. Sleep tight.

  3. Rachel

    I am also a correctional officer. Most days I love my job but there are days I wonder what I got myself into. To help with decompression and such, I started a blog that discusses every day issues for corrections officers. You can check it out at http://www.correctionallife.blogspot.com

  4. Gary

    25 years in Colorado Corrections then I quit, walked away. Hated the last 10 years. Had all symptoms described in this article. Tried to stay, tried counseling on own and through EAP, none were of any help. I even asked for help from my Department and was shunned, treated like a trouble maker. After quitting, I went through about 8 months of therapy to include EMDR treatment, which was really helpful. Over a year later I still suffer from nightmares and occasional anxiety and depression. I miss working corrections a lot, but at the same time I don’t want to go back. If I had it to do over again I don’t think I would work Corrections again. The cost was too high.

    I now work with high school kids and enjoy my job a lot. Completely different than what I did before. I often hear co-workers complain about their jobs and I have to laugh, because they don’t know what a “shitty job” really is.

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