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The value of mental health breaks in corrections

Something as simple as guided visualization trips to the beach can help build resiliency in jobs where it seems impossible to relax


Short relaxation techniques can be used to build resiliency in corrections.


By Janelle Guthrie

Roughly once a week, Washington State Department of Corrections’ Chief Staff Psychologist Dr. Phil Gibson takes the agency’s headquarters Emergency Operations Center staff to Hawaii for approximately five minutes.

No, they aren’t heading to the actual beach on “state time.” This is just one way Gibson helps this high-stress, high-achieving team build resilience and become even more effective.

It’s a technique he and his team are using across the Washington State Department of Corrections to address the realities staff face. All new agency employees are trained in topics like suicide prevention and intervention, first aid, hostage situations, de-escalation and emergency management – and they are required to take annual training in these areas and more. Many Corrections staff know it’s only a matter of time before they experience or witness an assault, face exposure to bodily fluids or face negative media coverage despite the fact they are doing their best in stressful, high-stakes situations.

Staff at Corrections are trained to maintain professionalism with respect, build cooperative relationships and work in situations many other public and private sector employees will never experience. Gibson’s five-minute trips to the beach are his way of teaching people to build resilience in jobs where it seems impossible to relax.

These jobs are hard. Pile on the COVID-19 pandemic, school shutdowns, statewide stay-at-home orders, civil unrest, proposed budget reductions, mandatory furloughs and issues associated with them and it becomes easy to see why maintaining good mental health has become a huge concern for leaders across the state.

The value of mental health breaks

Early in his career, Gibson developed an exercise to clearly demonstrate the importance of mental health breaks, especially to employees who pride themselves on being mentally and physically tough.

He asked one of the strongest men in the group to join him at the front of the room and directed him to hold a stack of books out in front of him for the duration of his remarks. Periodically, he would add another book to the stack.

The stack itself wasn’t incredibly heavy, but as the clock ticked by, and he kept adding books, the man’s muscles started to tremble, consistent with how people’s bodies react to other isometric exercises like wall sits or planks. Eventually, the man lost control and the books fell to the floor. If Gibson had created periodic breaks for his colleague to rest, the man would have been able to hold those books for longer, but lacking an opportunity to put the books down, even for a few minutes, the man was unable to keep holding them.

“We are not designed to hold things in a static position for extended periods of time,” Gibson said. “And we will face even more challenges ahead as children are returning to classes and online teaching continues, budget proposals move forward and the election looms on the horizon. These stressors are cumulative, stacking one on top of another. The key is learning how to put things down and pick them up again later.”

This is why Gibson and staff psychologists are teaching agency employees how to build resilience, including using short relaxation techniques like:

These trainings are not just for new employees. The staff psychologist team recently filmed several short videos to support employees across the enterprise whether they are in an office, working shifts at facilities or teleworking.

“We’re raising awareness that you can allow yourself to disengage and let go,” Gibson said. “Sometimes the pace feels so relentless and people are so stressed. They think they can get ahead by doing more but they are just carrying more. We’re teaching them to find little moments to put things down. These techniques can be accessed at any time and then you’re better able to return to the work at hand.”

Staff Counseling Program and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams

Created in 1999 to provide confidential psychological counseling services to Corrections employees, the Staff Counseling Program is unique to the state of Washington, and the only one of its kind in the country until just recently. Staff psychologists serve the needs of agency employees throughout the state, empowering and building relationships with employees and helping them navigate through professional and personal difficulties by being available and responsive to their needs.

Per the Department of Corrections policy 850.015 Staff Counseling and Employee Assistance, basic services are free to employees and don’t require leave as long as employees discuss coverage with their supervisors ahead of time. Employees may need to make other arrangements for longer-term mental health counseling or substance abuse needs.

Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams in seven regions across the state provide individuals involved in a critical incident a chance to discuss issues in a confidential setting, understand common reactions to stress and learn effective stress management techniques. Roughly 180 Corrections employees serve as members of the CISM team, including 40-50 new members awaiting virtual training due to the restrictions on live training to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

The staff psychologists and CISM teams are busier than ever these days with rolling deployments across the state. Together they are focusing on being present in offices and at facilities, identifying the units and locations with the highest needs and working with human resources to determine others who might need a check-in.

“We are wheeling coffee carts around to help with morale, asking how people are doing and genuinely listening to help them during these stressful times,” Gibson said. “Whether we are providing one-on-one assistance or more broadly supporting staff and boosting morale, we want employees to know we are here for them.

“We can help them find a space to quietly set aside all the stress and worries they’ve been holding with no end in sight,” he said. “Then they can pick up and be strong again for everyone who depends on them.”

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About the author

Janelle Guthrie is the communications director for the Washington State Department of Corrections.