Addressing the unique stressors facing corrections officers

by Dr. Anna Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet® Program at AT&T and Mostafa Sanati - FirstNet Health and Wellness Intern

When we first socialized the framework and goals of the FirstNet Health and Wellness Program to leadership in the public safety community, one of our key leaders called me after the meeting and gently said, “Anna, you’ve forgotten sworn correctional officers in your model.”

While sworn correctional officers are considered first responders, they are often integrated into law enforcement in general and not separated as a distinct category.  This created a glaring gap in the population we were trying to serve through the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition, and we needed to address correctional officers in a meaningful way.

The general public doesn’t typically think of correctional officers as first responders. But studies show that correctional officers face some of the same physical and mental health issues as others in public safety. They struggle to maintain an appropriate work-life balance, deal with burnout, emotional stress, and other mental health issues. Plus, they face environmental challenges that differ from other law enforcement professions. These include cramped working conditions, high ratios of offenders to officers, lack of windows and fresh air, and social isolation within the facility itself.

Battling burnout

Overwhelmingly, burnout is a leading problem in corrections. Burnout contributes to adverse personal and organizational outcomes such as high turnover rates, absenteeism, job dissatisfaction, and lack of productivity. Burnout syndrome manifests itself with different signs and symptoms¹. Poor work-life balance, emotional instability, reduced coping skills, anger management issues, depersonalization, and a sense of low personal accomplishment are some of the signs of workplace burnout. In addition, emotional stress is common among occupations that interact with the vulnerable population such as nurses, social workers, and correctional officers².

Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, has seen this first-hand. That’s one of the reasons he is an advocate for including correctional officers in the discussion about first responder health and wellness. Their jobs require both mental and physical strength and well-being.

“Right now, correctional officers go to work, are enclosed in facilities with no access to wellness services, then go home and start the pattern all over again,” Stirling said.

Stressors of the job

The service correctional officers provide is not just to the incarcerated population but also to society. And they’re expected to conduct themselves professionally  – all while handling conflict, de-escalating situations, defending themselves against manipulation and aggression, and providing first aid and basic life support if necessary³. They must keep both prisoners and their local communities safe.

Like other first responders, correctional officers face major occupational stressors, such as mandatory overtime, lack of schedule flexibility (due to high turnover and inadequate staffing), mental and physical trauma, and critical incidents².

This constant exposure to conflict and dangerous working conditions can lead to mental distress if not addressed. Correctional officers face higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than those reported to the general public and suicidal ideation. Dr. Fuscom and colleagues report that exposure to traumatic events had a direct correlation with higher incidents of PTSD and mental trauma among correctional staff⁴. These are the risk factors that contribute to the burnout facing the corrections profession.

Addressing the issues

But there are things you can do to address burnout.  The recent FirstNet First Responder Needs Assessment revealed a need for leadership engagement in officer health and wellness.  Many first responders desire an open dialogue and activity that support wellness efforts within their departments.

“We need to provide information on resources and tools that correctional officers can engage in for their wellness both on and off the clock,” Director Stirling said. “There are actions individuals can take at home that facilitate stress management and healthy behaviors. And tools, such as applications that they can use at work to develop their individual wellness.”

In addition to leadership engagement, correctional officers would benefit from access to reliable mental health and suicide-prevention applications, the literature shows5. In an effort to support these recommendations, FirstNet, Built with AT&T has expanded the FirstNet App Catalog to include apps that support the wellness and safety of first responders including correctional staff.

  • The ResponderRel8 app provides peer-to-peer support for responder health and wellness needs.

  • The Lighthouse Health and Wellness app identifies culturally competent resources and training that address public safety wellness needs.  And the app is free for departments to use and tailor to meet their local needs.

  • Finally, the Better App and the Better Stop Suicide App provide evidence-based approaches to mental health support, directly addressing the risk factors faced by the corrections population.

Correctional officer health is a complex problem rooted in many factors. But we can start with raising awareness, identifying resources, and engaging leadership in the conversation so that correctional officers become a more readily apparent part of the public safety dialogue.  And we are grateful to be a part of that conversation.

Mr. Mostafa (Moe) Sanati is a Doctorate in Nursing Practice student at the Ohio State University.  He is an intern to the FirstNet Health and Wellness Program. Moe currently works as a trauma nurse and prior to his nursing career, Moe served as a volunteer firefighter and EMT for the village of Versailles. Moe lives in Ohio with this wife, and two children. Moe has a master’s in business administration (MBA) from SolBridge International School of Business in South Korea and a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Moe is passionate about public health, especially that of first responders and Veterans.

Dr. Anna Fitch Courie, Director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T is a nurse, Army wife, former university faculty, and author.  Anna holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University.  Anna’s area of expertise is integration of public health strategy across disparate organizations to achieve health improvement goals. Anna is a passionate Clemson football fan; loves to read, cook, walk, hike; and prior to COVID19, was an avid traveler.

1 Jaegers, L. A., Vaughn, M. G., Werth, P., Matthieu, M. M., Ahmad, S. O., & Barnidge, E. (2020). Work–Family Conflict, Depression, and Burnout Among Jail Correctional Officers: A 1-Year prospective study. safety and health at work.

2 Harizanova, S., & Stoyanova, R. (2020). Burnout among nurses and correctional officers. Work, 65(1), 71–77.

3 Useche, S. A., Montoro, L. V., Ruiz, J. I., Vanegas, C., Sanmartin, J., & Alfaro, E. (2019). Workplace burnout and health issues among Colombian correctional officers. PLoS ONE, 14(2), 1–20.

4 Fuscom, N., Ricciardelli, R., Jamshidi, L., Carleton, N., Barnim, N., Hilton, Z., & Groll, D. (2021). When Our Work Hits Home: Trauma and mental disorders in correctional officers and other correctional workers. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11.

5 Karcher, N. R., & Presser, N. R. (2018). Ethical and legal issues addressing the use of mobile health (mHealth) as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Ethics & Behavior, 28(1), 1–22. Kenny, R., Fitzgerald, A., Segurado, R., & Dooley, B. (2019). Is there an app for that? A cluster randomized controlled trial of a mobile app–based mental health intervention. Health Informatics Journal, 26(3), 1538–1559.

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