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Mental Health Support: Reducing Stress and Suicide Among Correctional Workers

Thurston-Snoha, B., and L.E. Mora. (2011). Correctional workers and stress: Providing mental health support. Corrections Today, December, 55-58.

By Lori Whitten, Staff Writer, RTI International, Rockville, MD

Staff members are a central aspect of a correctional facility, influencing its safety and security. But with the job comes enormous stress. High levels of stress, in turn, may increase rates of burnout, turnover, absenteeism, and even suicide, particularly during times of increasing costs and decreasing budgets. Bonnie-Jean Thurston-Snoha, Ph.D., of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Bruceton Mills, WV, and Louis Ernesto Mora, Ph.D., of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in West Brentwood, NY, argue that employee stress affects not only the individual but also the functioning and security of correctional facilities. The potential negative impact of stress on both employees and facilities underlies the need to understand its origins and implement programs designed to augment correThis close-up photograph shows the tip of a pencil pointing to the definition of the word “stress” in a dictionary.  ctional workers’ health. The researchers recently summarized factors that influence stress, connections between stress and suicide, staff support programs, and how research may be used to prevent suicide among corrections workers.

The researchers found that job-related characteristics, for example, perceptions of danger and professional-role stress, are more strongly associated with stress among correctional employees than personal factors such as education level, race, and tenure. Organizational factors also contribute to correctional employees’ stress—including lack of job-performance feedback and inconsistent rule enforcement and discipline. Employees’ personality traits or history of mental illness may also influence their stress levels.

Some bulwarks against burnout include opportunities for promotion, input into decision-making, and well-established avenues of communication. A comprehensive interview process, one that provides realistic descriptions of positions and evaluates the judgment of correctional job candidates, may help management select workers who are well-suited for the position and further reduce turnover.

Extremely high levels of stress may lead to thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide, and completed suicides. It is perhaps not surprising that research documents an increased risk for suicide among correctional workers compared with those in other fields. But organizations can address this problem by recognizing risk factors particular to the individual and the facility, and by implementing employee-support programs to help encourage and support staff mental health, Thurston-Snoha and Mora say.

Correctional institutions should support all aspects of employee mental health, whether they be personal, job, organizational, or incident-related. Organizations, for example, might provide an Employee Assistance Program—which helps workers resolve personal difficulties by providing counseling services from professionals outside the facility. For individuals affected by crisis incidents such as hostage situations, death of an employee while on the job, and inmate suicides, counseling is appropriate. Such counseling should not be restricted only to workers, but also to their families and co-workers as well. Prior research has indicated that regular educational seminars that promote psychological well-being improved the physical (e.g., blood pressure and heart rate) and psychological (e.g., stress, motivation, and fatigue) functioning among correctional employees.

The researchers also stated that studies on suicide among correctional staff can be used to guide organizational practices, including hiring strategies and employee-support programs. In particular, future research might evaluate hiring strategies by examining how organizational culture influences employee hiring and support, as well as how these policies are associated with subsequent employee job performance, burnout, and turnover. Such studies might also identify how gender, ethnicity, education, and other characteristics affect these factors.

For more information, contact Dr. Bonnie-Jean Thurston-Snoha, Federal Bureau of Prisons in Bruceton Mills, WV,

Posted Mon, Sep 9 2013 9:25 AM by Tracey Vessels
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