Causes of burnout in corrections
Burnout is not a cliché. There is a lot behind the word — and correctional officers, from the newbies to the veterans, should know more about it
Corrections! Who in their right mind would want to work in corrections? Putting up with gangs? Mentally ill inmates? Being attacked at a moment’s notice? Working double shifts? Being exposed to COVID-19?
Fortunately, there is in our nation a dedicated, well-trained group of people who have embraced this difficult career – correctional officers. They are the ones who, day after day, get up, suit up, gear up and walk into a building where the residents do not want to be. The residents, or inmates as we know them, employ overt means to resist authority, such as violence. In addition, they use very subtle means to manipulate staff. The rules of society, they think, do not apply to them.
Let us add some other things into the mix. Overcrowding, working short-staffed and, this past year, the problem of COVID-19, can all wear down even the most resilient correctional officer, the strongest juvenile detention worker or the most dedicated probation/parole officer. When someone known for griping frequently calls in sick, the other officers feel his or her absence. The word “burnout” may be heard in conversations. He or she is “burned out.” Or, “Do you know Officer ___? He is a real burnout.”
Burnout is not a cliché. There is a lot behind the word – and correctional officers, from the newbies to the veterans, should know more about it. Narrowing that down, correctional staff, both sworn and non-sworn, should know what causes burnout, how to recognize its negative effects, and what can be done to counteract it as well as prevent it. In this article, we’ll tackle causes of burnout in corrections; future articles will focus on symptoms and effects as well as steps to combat it.
Underlying Causes of Burnout in Corrections
The underlying cause of burnout is unmanaged stress. Ask a correctional officer what stress is to them. Some may say uncooperative inmates; others may say shift work. A probation officer might say meeting due dates to get a presentence investigative report to a sentencing judge on time. If you ask about stress at home, the answers may range from low wages to missing family activities due to overtime.
Stress is the reaction – how we physically and mentally react to the demands put upon us, such as the shift work or inmates arguing with us. These demands, either from work or from home, are called stressors.
This is not to say that correctional staff are mistaken when talking about stress. Stress and stressors are very closely related, and it is easy to combine them. Hans Selye (1907–1982) pioneered the study of stress, and thanks to his research, we know much more about it. Selye said that stress “is the event, person or circumstance that triggers a physical and mental reaction … or the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.”
What we think mentally and feel physically are our reactions to these demands – the stress. The demands are the stressors. Stress is a part of life – it is there every day.
Let’s apply this to the field of corrections, both institutional and non-institutional. Corrections personnel deal with about every type of criminal in existence, including their behavioral issues. However, if you ask corrections professionals what stresses them out, their lists of stressors include: 
- Substandard salaries
- Tight deadlines
- Working short-staffed; high staff turnover
- Offender demands, manipulation, violence and arguments
- Substandard buildings and equipment
- Management errors: lack of clear guidelines; conflicting decisions; poor communication; lack of support, recognition or appreciation; lack of promotional opportunities
- Excessive noise, body odors, feces, exposure to disease, COVID-19
- Offenders with mental health issues
- Offenders with medical problems, including alcohol and drugs
The Stress Cycle
We react to these stressors in several stages. When we are faced with one, an alarm bell goes off, and we recognize the threat. We make an appraisal. Due to the nature of the job, we face it; we deal with it—we must. Our body and mind mobilize to get ready. We respond, we call backup, we take steps to control the offender, and so on. Finally, we return to the pre-stress state, or baseline. We relax and become less keyed up. 
A correctional worker must have adaptive energy, the energy to recharge both body and mind, so he or she can get ready for the next stressor, whenever and wherever it happens. Stress management training, now recognized as a critical topic for correctional staff, must emphasize the importance of adaptive energy. If corrections workers never get back to the baseline, calm down or develop adaptive energy, the negative effects of stress will accumulate over a career. The more we do not manage stress, the more exhausted we become – and that is how burnout develops.
1. Cornelius G. Stressed Out! Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections. Alexandria, VA: American Correctional Association, 2005.
2. Mills H, Reiss N, Dombeck M. Stress Reduction and Management: The Four Stages of a Stress Reaction. Gulf Bend Center.