Supervising prisons or jails is a pressure-packed profession. One might assume that the strain is primarily a function of correctional officers’ acute episodic and traumatic interactions with the persons who incarcerated, including frequent emergencies. Another significant and often-overlooked source of staff stress, however, is organizational stress driven by dysfunctional relationships within the agency and an unhealthy overall professional climate. Interpersonal conflicts and lack of trust between supervisory and line staff, coupled with long shifts exacerbated by a lack of adequate staffing, may be particularly debilitating.
The urgent need to address the impact of organizational stress on staff has begun to gain traction in corrections and other justice system sectors. In the law enforcement community, for example, practitioners have advocated in favor of the development of officer skills to mitigate the stress of toxic office politics. Recent research supported by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) suggests a similar movement exists in the corrections environment.
Emerging Recognition of Agency Relationships as Major Source of Corrections Staff Stress
Research conducted by Northeastern University found that organizational stress among corrections officers, particularly in relationships between supervisors and front-line officers, along with long shifts or mandatory overtime, substantially contributed to a high-stress work environment that can interfere with a positive work-life balance.
Although the sources of organizational stress can be entrenched in an environment and can be difficult to overcome, it may be possible to mitigate these stressors through changes in policy. In light of the pandemic, and the waves of related occupational and personal stress, it has become particularly critical for correctional agencies to understand the sources of organizational stressors within their agencies so they can develop tools to address them reliably. The research suggests that organizational stress may be one of the only sources of stress these agencies can control. It is much harder to mitigate the operational stress arising from the very nature of a job.
NIJ seeks to provide assistance for both understanding the prevalence of these stressors and developing solutions to them. In fiscal year 2020, NIJ issued a research solicitation supporting its Safety, Health, and Wellness portfolio that specifically addresses this issue. The portfolio facilitates research on the safety and wellness of staff in the entire criminal justice system, both police and correctional officers, as well as individuals involved with the system. Past research from this portfolio has focused on trauma and the chronic, debilitating stress brought on by traumatic events, such as PTSD.
In light of concerns expressed by correctional officers about their job stress, NIJ recognized the importance of organizational sources of stress that have been under-researched. The Institute’s fiscal year 2020 solicitation requested research on the prevalence of organizational stressors in police and corrections agencies, as well as strategies to mitigate them. These stressors include interpersonal conflict, a toxic work environment, mandatory overtime and fluctuating shifts, and a lack of control over one’s work environment. A primary goal of the research is to gain a clearer picture of the problems these stressors pose for line staff officers and how to limit their impact.
The strong response to NIJ’s solicitation from the research community, along with the willingness of many correctional agencies to collaborate with researchers despite current operational challenges, underscores the vital importance of this topic for correctional officers. Given substantial interest within the field, NIJ was able to make three research awards that are expected to advance the study of organizational stressors in corrections agencies and one award that will advance the study of organizational stressors in sheriffs’ offices.
What follows is a summary of the research awards made under this solicitation. Three of the awards specifically address correctional agencies and officers, while the fourth award supports a study of law enforcement officers and correctional sheriff deputies. The research projects will begin in January 2021, with the majority of findings expected in two to three years.
Impact of Organizational Stress on Officer Wellness and Perceptions of Stress
The first project, conducted by the Police Foundation, will assess the prevalence and impact of organizational stress among law enforcement and correctional deputies in sheriffs’ offices. The project is designed to connect our understanding of organizational stress across policing and corrections. The research team plans to recruit 60 police officers and 60 correctional deputies to complete questionnaires on stress, maintain sleep and activity logs, and wear a device that will capture heart rate variability, resting heart rate, physical activity, and sleep quality. The Police Foundation will also use agency-level data to capture shifts, assignments, absences, and overall job performance. The research is expected to shed light on how organizational stress affects officers’ overall wellness and perceptions of stress, and how those factors influence effectiveness on the job.
Isolating the Impact of Organizational Stress Apart From Work-Related Stress
This project will study organizational stress affecting correctional officers in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This two-part study, conducted by the National Disease Research Interchange, will first survey over 8,000 correctional officers and conduct in-depth interviews of 40 officers from all ranks to identify the most significant organizational stressors. Once the researchers identify the sources of stress, it will use the Total Worker Health toolkit, developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to work with correctional officers, leadership, and members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association to establish facility-specific policies to mitigate organizational stressors.
Resiliency Promoted by Correctional Officer Social Networks
This research project also will attempt to isolate the stress associated with organizational factors from the anxiety associated with the nature of the job. Northeastern University will randomly select 375 new correctional officers graduating from the Massachusetts Department of Correction’s academies and follow them through their first five years on the job. Through repeated interviews, the researchers will try to distinguish operational and organizational stressors from exposure to traumatic incidents. These interviews will also try to establish the role of correctional officers’ social networks in coping with stress, and how these networks change while an officer is on the job. This work will build on critical findings from a recently concluded Northeastern University study (mentioned above), which revealed that the social networks and support systems for correctional officers are particularly important to their overall health and well-being. Those findings were an element of the study’s broader subject, correctional officer suicides.
Environmental Stress Associated With Working in Restrictive Housing
One source of organizational stress is shift duration and type of assignment. Oregon Health and Science University, through ongoing NIJ-funded research, is seeking to establish the link between work environment and stress. NIJ has funded a new project for the university to explore ways to mitigate these organizational stressors among correctional officers in a particularly high-stress environment: restrictive housing. This research will evaluate the implementation of a mindfulness and group-learning intervention using the Total Worker Health toolkit. The researchers plan to enroll over 100 participants in 12 sessions that will feature a training video as well as group discussions designed to gauge current officer organizational stress levels and work to overcome them. This promising program is officer-led, and the sessions are short enough to occur at the start of each shift.
The new NIJ-supported research will give correctional and law enforcement policymakers and practitioners a better understanding of how the internal characteristics of their agencies, coupled with the normal demands of an officer’s job, can place extreme stress on officers. NIJ is encouraged by the high level of interest from researchers and their agency partners in finding strategies to reduce and mitigate these sources of stress. Correctional agencies have a growing number of options that allow them to be more supportive of officers, to promote a work-life balance, and to improve the overall quality of life for correctional officers. Importantly, it seems clear that many agencies are willing to put in the hard work to improve officer health and wellness.
[note 1] See Johnson, R. (2015). “Police Organizational Commitment: The Influence of Supervisor Feedback and Support,” Crime and Delinquency 61: 1155-1180; and Maguen, S. et al. (2009). “Routine Work Environment Stress and PTSD Symptoms in Police Officers,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases 197(10): 754 -760.
[note 2] Gove, T. (2011). “Perspective: Strategies for Curbing Organizational Politics.” Law Enforcement Bulletin. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
[note 3] Frost, N., Monteiro, N.C., and Stowell, J. (2020). The Impact of Correctional Officer Suicide on the Institutional Environment and on the Wellbeing of Correctional Employees. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. See also Liberman, A. et al. (2002). “Routine Occupational Stress and Psychological Distress in Police,” Policing: An Internal Journal of Police Strategies & Management 25(2): 421-439.
[note 4] See Pope, L. and Bibiana, J. (2019). A Sentinel Events Approach to Jail Suicide and Self-Harm. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. Although there are some inherently stressful and traumatic aspects of the correctional officer’s job, there are strategies and practices to mitigate this source of stress as well. Addressing self-harm is obviously critical to protecting the mental and physical health of incarcerated persons, but it also improves the operating environment for both staff and the incarcerated.
[note 5] Based on discussions at an NIJ-hosted panel at the American Correctional Association annual meeting, August 2019.