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3 simple ways to battle correctional officer burnout

Anyone who has worked in a correctional facility knows what “it” is; here are 3 steps to avoid the dread


In this Aug. 31, 2007, file photo, a guard tower is seen behind the wire fence that surrounds California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

By Officer William Young, C1 Contributor

When I wake up on a Monday morning, I begin my emotional spiral. As I get up and let my dog out I know that in less than 16 hours I will be back at it. My 48-hour furlough is over. Back to the salt mines.

As I sit on my back porch trying to enjoy my first cup of coffee, my mind gears up for all of the ridiculous arguments I’m sure are going to happen. I steel myself for the barrage of insults and threats and accusations of unfair treatment and racism.

My dog sits at my feet. The birds are chirping, the air is fresh and the coffee is terrific, yet I am not at ease. I am not relaxed.

I can feel it.

Anyone who has worked in a correctional facility knows what “it” is. “It” is when your mood starts to darken and you feel the agitation, and I hate it. “It” is when you don’t want to be in a bad mood but you are. “It” is when I’m short with my wife and the kiddos and all I want to do is lay on my couch until it’s time to put on my uniform and head to work.

This is a ridiculous ritual if you think about it. When I’m at work all I can think about are all the things I’m going to do on the weekend (most of which I won’t actually do), and when I’m at home, I spend a lot of time thinking about the job. Why do I do this? Call it fatigue. Call it burnout. Call it institutionalization. Call “it” whatever you want to, but “it” sucks.

The worst part for me is watching my family tip toe around in fear of me when I’m in the throes of my spiral. Not only does my job affect me in a negative manner, it affects my family as well, which only adds to the guilt and anxiety.

So what can I do?

Well, the first thing is to admit I have a problem. To acknowledge you have an issue that needs attention is the most important step. Being aware of your emotions and owning up to your triggers can help you understand what is going on and what you need to repair yourself. Once you’ve taken that first step, here are three more that can help make “it” go away:

1. Make time to decompress

Finding the time to decompress or transition from work to home is paramount when battling correctional fatigue. I use the time it takes me to travel from work to home to decompress. I don’t turn on the radio or talk on my cell phone. I just roll down the windows and drive.

I also have a strange exercise I do during my commute home to work on my patience. I purposely drive the speed limit in the right hand lane. I don’t pass anybody, I just drive. I watch all of the other commuters speed and slam on their brakes and whip in and out and switch lanes and I just smile. I find that there is a perverse sense of control when others are going crazy around you.

2. Ask for “me time”

The other thing I did is have a very awkward conversation with my wife, who is a working mother of three, about needing “me time.”

I explained that because of the nature of my job I need to have some time that is dedicated not only to my psychical health, but also my emotional health. She took it well, probably better than I would if she told me that she needed some “me time.” The conversation was the easy part.

The hard part was, and is, taking the “me time” that I need to recharge my batteries.

3. Avoid isolation

Sitting alone next to a fire with a stiff drink in your hand may sound enticing, but the truth is isolation as a practice enhances the effect of fatigue. Have hobbies, coach a little league team, go to church or lodge, and for heaven’s sake take your family out to the movies or the amusement park or to the mall. Trust people. Put yourself out there in the community and help others.

Re-connect with the friends who stopped inviting you to their parties because you always found a reason not to go. Call the brother or the uncle or the father you haven’t talked to for months because of an argument you had over something so stupid that neither one of you remembers. Force yourself to get out of the house and live life. The world is not that dangerous, you will be fine.

No one can make you do any of these things. You have to make the commitment to help yourself. Get good sleep when you can. Exercise daily. Make good food choices. Be compassionate, optimistic and respectful. Allow yourself to be happy. Allow yourself to unwind. And smile.

About the author
Officer William Young is a 13-year veteran of the Douglas County Department of Corrections in Omaha, Nebraska. He has worked throughout the facility in various areas ranging from sanitation to segregation and is currently assigned to community corrections as a work release officer. He is a certified emergency preparedness (LETRA) instructor and also teaches motivational interviewing and “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment.”

Officer Young understands and acknowledges the damage that working in a correctional environment can do to a person’s psychical and mental health. Battling fatigue himself, he is determined to assist his fellow brothers and sisters by helping them identify, manage and reverse the side effects and symptoms of working in such an environment.

The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency.