Stress Management Strategies for Corrections Officers

Corrections officers work in one of the most volatile, high-stress environments that exists in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, correctional officers have one of the highest rates of illness and injury of all occupations. High levels of stress from the job can carry into other areas of a correctional officer’s life, including home, family and personal time. Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Programs Diagnostic Center in 2013 found that corrections officers have a higher rate of suicide than those in other occupations. Moreover, 25.7 percent of corrections officers surveyed were depressed, and a whopping 67 percent had experienced some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their careers.  It stands to reason, then, that corrections officers could benefit from learning stress management techniques and strategies. 

What Are Some Causes of Stress for Correctional Officers?

Stress is a large part of the job of a correctional officer. Being responsible for the safety and security of inmates, the incarceration facility, and of fellow staff members places much obligation on the corrections officer to feel that they must excel in their job duties. Other common causes of stress for many correctional officers include:

  • Overcrowding and understaffing in incarceration facilities, requiring them to work mandatory overtime and inconsistent rotating shifts.
  • Perceived and actual threats of physical violence from inmates on a daily basis.
  • Risk of being injured on the job.
  • Not getting enough time to spend with family.
  • Inmate demands and manipulation on a daily basis.
  • Changing administrative demands causing tension with coworkers and/or supervisors.
  • Lack of proper job training.
  • Lack of participation in decision making on the job.
  • Insufficient salary.
  • Role ambiguity, duties not well understood or delineated.
  • Lack of stress management training when first hired and on an ongoing basis.

What Are Some Signs and Symptoms of Stress in Correctional Officers?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes the following are the most common signs of stress, not just in correctional officers but for everyone:

  • Feeling emotionally numb.
  • Feelings of sadness, helplessness and frustration.
  • Feelings of anger, tension and irritability.
  • Recurring feelings of fear and anxiety.
  • Trouble concentrating, focusing and making decisions.
  • Finding less interest in activities that used to be enjoyable.
  • Feelings of wanting to be alone and avoiding spending time with others.
  • Loss of appetite or overeating.
  • Nightmares.
  • Irregular sleeping patterns.
  • Irrational thinking patterns.
  • Headaches, muscle aches, stomach pains, digestive issues.
  • Smoking.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.

What Are Some Stress Management Strategies Correctional Officers Can Use?

Correctional officers should be trained in stress management techniques, including recognizing stress symptoms in themselves and co-workers, as part of their on-the-job training. For those corrections officers who are not offered such training, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) provides online training courses. A few of the ones related to stress have titles such as, “Take a Deep Breath and Manage Your Stress,” “How to Manage Difficult Conversations,” and “Staying Balanced in a Shifting World.”

Many people who experience stress have no idea how to handle it, and instead turn to negative coping strategies (such as using alcohol or drugs, overeating, or smoking) to deal with the symptoms. This can actually make stress symptoms worse, prolonging a vicious cycle. Experts have identified a variety of stress management techniques and methods that may be helpful to correctional officers. Each person must decide what strategies work best for them. A few universal ideas to help manage stress include:

  • Avoiding unnecessary stress – learning to say no to things, and avoiding contact with stressful people or situations as much as possible
  • Changing situations – changing situations that you cannot avoid, through expressing your feelings assertively and constructively and remaining open to compromise and negotiation
  • Adapting to the stressor and changing your attitude – if you can’t change the stressor, change the way you react to it and your attitude. Focus on the positive qualities and aspects of your life when you look at the “big picture.” This might require that you adjust your standards and attitude even more, such as putting aside perfectionism and setting reasonable expectations for yourself and others.
  • Accepting what you cannot change – realize that you can’t control how others think, feel and behave. Instead, try to change your reactions and responses to people and situations. Accept the fact that you cannot change what is uncontrollable. Start seeking out the positive in every situation. Share your feelings with others and let go of resentment and anger. The “Serenity Prayer,” authored by Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, which is often used in addiction recovery, can also be very helpful as a stress management technique: 

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

  • Making time for fun and relaxation – regularly doing so means that you will be better equipped to handle stress when it comes your way. Do something you enjoy every day, and maintain a sense of humor. Humor helps to combat fear, provides comfort, relaxes and reduces emotional and physical pain, boosts immunity, reduces stress, and spreads happiness. Make sure to set aside time to spend with your family, who is your greatest asset and can help you get through stressful situations. 
  • Adopting a healthy lifestyle – strengthening your physical and emotional health through regular exercise and eating clean and healthy can help to fight stress. This includes avoiding alcohol and drugs and getting enough sleep. All of this will help to increase your self-confidence, which can help to reduce stress as well. If you’re not a big exercise buff, start with these small, fun ways to get moving:
    • Take your dog for a walk.
    • Put on music and dance around your house.
    • Walk or bicycle to the store.
    • Use the stairs whenever possible.
    • Park your car in the farthest spot in the lot and walk the rest of the way.
    • Play ping pong or another activity with your kids.
    • Pair up with a friend and encourage each other to exercise and work out together.
  • Connecting to others – in addition to making time for fun and relaxation, spending time with others is calming as well. Face-to-face interaction triggers hormones that counteract your body’s “fight or flight” response and works as a natural stress reliever. So make time for family and friends, in person if at all possible. Ways you can build relationships with others and help to manage stress include:
    • Helping others through volunteering.
    • Having coffee or lunch with a friend.
    • Scheduling a weekly dinner date with your significant other.
    • Walking with a workout buddy.
    • Taking a friend to the movies.
    • Meeting new people by joining a club or taking a class.
    • Calling an old friend.
    • Reaching out to a work colleague.
  • Managing your time better – poor time management can cause stress. Learn not to over-commit yourself, prioritize tasks, break projects into small steps, and learn to delegate responsibility. 
  • Seek professional help – if all else fails, do not be afraid to seek professional help to deal with stress. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather, a sign of strength and taking care of yourself. Whether you feel more comfortable talking to a spiritual advisor or a mental health professional, find someone to whom you can be completely open about your feelings. You will be surprised how much help you will receive in return.