Surviving Occupational Stress on the Inside

The stresses of correctional work are well documented, but the path to alleviating them requires real work

By Michael Orticelle  |   Nov 30, 2016

Law enforcement is one of the most stressful professions in the country. Officers deal with the worst of humanity and see the results of horrific accidents and crimes. They have a higher rate of post-traumatic stress than any other profession. Correctional officers work in one of the most toxic work environments in the country. They work in constant fear of injury and are exposed to society’s worst offenders. Working in these conditions for several years can have a negative effect physically and psychologically. The correctional officers in this country lead the profession in stress-related illness and suicide. Something needs to be done to correct this situation.

Deadly Stresses of Corrections Work

I recently had the opportunity to conduct research looking at operational and organizational stress in corrections. The officers were asked to complete survey instruments. They rated the amount of stress they felt based on the statements listed in the survey using a seven-point Likert scale. The purpose of my study was to try and pinpoint situations and conditions in one medium-size jail that caused officers stress. The result of this quantitative study showed that officers with more years of service self-reported higher levels of stress.

We know that correctional officers have a higher rate (34.8%) of suicide than the general public (13%) and police officers (18%) (Corzine, 2009). In the jail I used in my research there have been six officer suicides in the past 6 years. Every time an officer commits suicide it effects the operation of the entire facility. The findings of this study reinforce the theory of Career Cumulative Traumatic Stress (CCTS).

Psychologist Dr. Caterina Spinaris Tudor in 2008 coined the phrase “Correctional Fatigue.” Correctional Fatigue describes the effects of stress experienced by correctional officers over a prolonged period of time. Tudor listed interpersonal relationships both at work and at home, organizational and operational stressors, and the exposure to traumatic incidents as the causes of correctional fatigue.  Literature examining the well-being of correctional officers has identified the working environment, the lack of organizational support, and exposure to potentially dangerous situations as factors negatively affecting officer job satisfaction (Dial, 2010; Finney, Stergiopoulos, Hensel, Bonato, & Dewa, 2013; Trounson et al., 2016).

Correctional officer suicide is not limited to one state or region. Massachusetts State Corrections (MSC) has experienced 12 officer suicides since 2011. The Bureau of Justice Assistance recently granted Northeastern University a $500,000 grant to conduct a qualitative study of suicide in MSC. There is a grass-roots movement that is providing law enforcement training to help officers understand the effects of the stress they encounter and help them to help their fellow officers. Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Dr. Robert E. Douglas Jr., Director of the National Police Suicide Foundation, suggests that 1 in 4 police officers have untreated post-traumatic stress. Dr. Douglas believes that the suicide rate for police is twice the number reported above. Correctional officers are twice as likely to suffer from stress-related conditions. Correctional officers on average are killed in the line of duty at a rate of 11 per year. Correctional officers are committing suicide at a rate of 183 per year and many suicides are misclassified as accidents by coroners, so the numbers may be higher.

What Can Be Done?

A National Institute of Justice study addressed the importance of creating a stress program and identifies the costs involved in sustaining the program as well as the costs of not having a program (NIJ, 2000). Programs identified in the NIJ report indicate costs ranging from $27,500 to $87,289 per year. An organization can expect to recoup this expense by retaining officers and reducing the costs associated with officers taking time off (Finn, Department of Justice, & Abt Associates, 2000). Administrators can expect financial savings, higher officer performance, better union-management relations and increases in institutional safety.

Showing a greater concern for the employee will foster employee satisfaction and create a less stressful work environment (Finn et al., 2000). A stress-reduction plan will benefit all levels of management. Midlevel supervisors will have the option of referring officers to peer groups or counseling instead of reporting them for minor infractions.

Supporters of stress-reduction programs admit there are some drawbacks. The most obvious is the cost of sustaining a program. Many county and state budgets do not have extra money for stress programs. Some administrators have shared concerns that officers take advantage of the program resources and are absent from work for extended periods, costing the organization money in overtime wages (Finn et al., 2000).

There are three types of programs that a correctional institution can incorporate into the organization.

In-house: Programs such as peer-to-peer and employee assistance programs are operated as a separate unit in the institution. The drawback to in-house programs is the lack of trust between the officers and the program administrators.

Service contract: Organizations can contract with services in the private sector, which helps to reduce the mistrust issue. These services can be cost prohibitive and officers may not feel comfortable speaking with people who are not in the corrections family.

Hybrid approach: A mix of in-house and external programs has some advantages, but drawbacks as well. A hybrid program may be confusing to navigate and cause conflict between the internal and external staff members (Finn, et al., 2000).


Realizing that these recommendations may be cost prohibitive, it is imperative to consider the cost of doing nothing.

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Michael Orticelle

Michael A. Orticelle, MPA, is retired from the Port Authority Police Department and a professor of criminal justice at Excelsior College, Albany, N.Y.

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