Why prevention is an integral component of corrections staff wellness programs

It is unacceptable to send corrections personnel to interpersonally complex and physically dangerous work environments without appropriate armor


Historians tell us that in 1736 Benjamin Franklin pointed out to the citizens of fire-threatened Philadelphia that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

This statement emphasizes that when we know that there is a substantial risk that a certain hazard will occur, it pays off to do what we can to reduce the likelihood that this hazard will befall us. The energies poured into such preventative efforts are likely to give us a high return on our investment by preventing ripple effects of suffering, possibly irreparable harm and even possibly loss of life.

Benjamin Franklin’s saying advises us that taking preventative steps yields significant positive return, and is definitely the intelligent and wise thing to do.

For corrections personnel, prevention at the individual level is essentially a type of emergency preparedness for the soul.
For corrections personnel, prevention at the individual level is essentially a type of emergency preparedness for the soul. (Getty Images)

These are reasons why prevention should be an essential component and a foundational principle of corrections staff wellness programs.

Sound research studies have established that corrections staff face a formidable occupational hazard which, for ease of discussing it, I call corrections fatigue. (By corrections fatigue I mean the cumulative and combined negative effects of all types of occupational stressors encountered in corrections work.)

Research has also shown that the risk, the probability, that this hazard will impact individual staff lives is fairly high, especially for corrections officers working in high-security institutions. For example, we know that throughout their corrections career staff will be repeatedly exposed at least indirectly (if not also directly) to potentially psychologically traumatizing work incidents that involve violence, injury or death, or threats thereof.

And we know, according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), that such exposure can lead to the development of PTSD. We also know that PTSD often occurs together with other mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder, substance use disorders and generalized anxiety disorder, all of which erode psychological and physical health (Carleton et al., 2020; Lerman, 2017; Spinaris & Brocato, 2019).

[MORE: How corrections officers can recognize PTSD]

Therefore, it is imperative that staff be prepared, and policies and work conditions be in place to confront this foe.

prevention is Protective gear for the soul

No employer would ever consider sending workers to a toxic spill without extensive training as to how to handle such spills and without adequate personal protective equipment. Similarly, no fire department would send firefighters to a fire without extensive prior training as to how to attack different types of fire, different types of burning materials, and different weather conditions. And no firefighter would be sent to fight a fire without a wide array of the most up-to-date fire-fighting equipment. Lives depend on doing so – both the firefighters’ lives and the lives of the ones they are dispatched to help.

To use a medical example, which physicians would you go to? Physicians who wash their hands and who use fresh pairs of gloves when examining patients, or physicians who do not wash their hands and who do not use clean gloves, but who reassure you that, if you get infected after they examine you, they will prescribe a course of antibiotic treatment to deal with that infection?

Along the same lines, it is unacceptable to send corrections personnel to highly interpersonally complex and physically dangerous work environments without appropriate armor – their personal protective equipment for the soul. It is equally unconscionable that staff routinely operate under work conditions that corrode health and undermine their well-being, with no research-supported measures intentionally and proactively in place to counter these effects.

what prevention looks like on the ground

Such protective gear, the equivalent of the ounce of prevention, needs to be based on a three-pronged approach:

  • individual – bottom-up efforts,
  • coworker/peer – horizontal efforts, and
  • administrator and supervisor – top-down efforts.

All three of these levels of prevention are essential for staff well-being and for healthy workforce cultures to mitigate the poisonous effects of corrections occupational hazards.

Administrators are well aware of the value of and necessity for emergency safety preparedness training. Prevention at the individual level is essentially a type of emergency preparedness for the soul. It includes training staff to recognize occupational hazards, skills for reducing and even overcoming harmful effects of traumatic exposure and other high-stress work conditions, self-care skills, post-traumatic growth skills, and resilience-promoting skills. Such training can help staff in crisis or under chronic stress identify what is happening, and guide them to make appropriate choices. And it can help prevent or reduce the likelihood that staff will become overwhelmed and/or that they will make poor decisions when in crisis or under chronic stress.

Prevention at the coworker/peer horizontal level includes training and practices that foster supportive work environments, such as the teaching of social intelligence skills, and satisfaction of the "Big 7" needs  – the needs for physical safety, psychological safety, trust, power, respect, connection and meaning.

Prevention at the administrator and supervisor top-down level includes the adoption of policies and procedures that protect staff well-being, such as policies that do not routinely interfere with biologically essential functions (for example, policies that allow for staff to get sufficient amounts of sleep); transformational and servant leadership training; and the dedication of funds and services to staff wellness programs and interventions.

These trainings and work conditions must be implemented regularly, consistently and continually. They cannot be expected to bear good fruit if offered only once or for a season. They must be a mainstay, not the flavor of the month, and expanded and added on as new needs and circumstances arise.

[READ: 6 mistakes correctional agencies can make when addressing staff wellness]

And since we know that, in spite of our best efforts, some people will be affected by the relentlessly stressful work conditions and also by interactions between work conditions and personal situations, agencies must provide corrections-specific clinical services for treatment and recovery. These include trauma-responsive and corrections-specific employee assistance programs with ample number of sessions at no charge for staff and family members; adequate health insurance coverage for mental health providers in the community, substance abuse treatment, hospital stays; and appropriately trained peer support teams.

post-incident services are not enough

Both prevention and treatment resources are indispensable in corrections workplaces. However, providing only or mostly treatment or post-incident services fails to adequately address foreseeable (and in some ways inevitable) harm and suffering.

We at Desert Waters believe that it is absolutely a moral and ethical obligation for corrections agencies to embrace rigorous and robust prevention measures in addition to implementing early post-incident interventions by offering timely services after an employee succumbs to occupational stressors. In the most serious cases, this might also be a legal obligation.

And it is important to remember that the health of a corrections organization and its ability to fulfill its mission can only be as good as the health of its workforce.

In line with what is presented here, a research paper on first responders’ work-related post-traumatic stress concludes that “… it is essential that most organizations invest on first responders’ training and equipment; however, the author suggests that organizational investment with additional funds and resources for first responders’ mental preparedness (e.g., trauma preventative training) should also be prioritized as a way to equip first responders against the risk to develop PTSD and other comorbid disorders.” (Papazoglou, 2017, 8-9) (Emphasis added.)

Quality of life and literally people’s survival depend on these measures – both staff lives and the lives of the ones they are tasked to manage and help – incarcerated individuals, probationers and parolees.

Indeed, as Benjamin Franklin advised long ago, in life’s weighing scale, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  2. Carleton, R. N., Ricciardelli, R., Taillieu, T., Mitchell, M. M., Andres, E., & Afifi, T. O. (2020, March 25). Provincial correctional service workers: The prevalence of mental disorders. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(7), 2203.
  3. Lerman, A. E. (2017). Office health and wellness: Results from the California Correctional Officer Survey
  4. Papazoglou, K. (2017). Examining the Psychophysiological Efficacy of CBT Treatment for First Responders Diagnosed With PTSD: An Understudied Topic. Journal of Police Emergency Response, July-September,1–15.
  5. Spinaris, C.G., & Brocato, N. (2019). Descriptive study of Michigan Department of Corrections Staff Well-being: Contributing factors, outcomes, and actionable solutions.

Reprinted with permission from the February 2022 issue of the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

2022 © Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC

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