|From Fatigue to Fulfillment|
|By Caterina G. Spinaris Tudor, Dr.|
The phenomenon known as Corrections Fatigue involves the gradual wear-and-tear of the spirit, soul and body of corrections staff as they adapt to the demands of their workplace. Think of stretching a rubber band. You stretch it once, twice, even ten times, yet it stays strong and elastic. It resumes its original size when you let go. However, if you keep stretching it, or if you pin it in a stretched position, it eventually loses its elasticity. It hardens, and finally it snaps. Similarly, if you keep bending a piece of metal, it becomes more and more pliable until it finally breaks.
These metaphors capture the toll endured by corrections staff as they try to accommodate job challenges. The changes are imperceptible at first. However, after a couple of years in corrections, they begin to show. Rubber bands lose their elasticity. Metal begins to weaken.
Based on the Constructivist Self Development Theory2, corrections fatigue is the cumulative negative transformation of correctional staff's self (beliefs, thoughts, emotions and decision-making) as they adapt to the corrections workplace.
It is the result of the cumulative impact of work-related situations interacting with a person's history, current circumstances and coping style.
Corrections Fatigue has been said to affect the following areas of a person's self (inner experience and functioning): frame of reference (identity, worldview and spirituality), core beliefs about meeting key needs, self-management, coping behaviors, and interpersonal tactics.
It is an unavoidable occupational hazard. No employee is totally immune. Ensuing changes are a gradual, cumulative process, not a sudden event. Unless countered, they become coping mechanisms for staff both on and off the job. The experience of Corrections Fatigue is emotionally distressing, as it injects negativity and pessimism in a person's life. The good news, however, is that it is amenable to change, and it can even be prevented!
Identity: As a result of Corrections Fatigue, staff may experience themselves one-dimensionally as a super cop (law enforcer), hero, rescuer, victim, or wimp.
I'm tough. Nothing gets to me. Or, I'm a glorified waiter and a doormat.
Worldview: Staff end up experiencing others as dangerous, dishonest, untrustworthy, “cons,” “bad.” They may dehumanize whoever is perceived as being different from them. They conduct relationships in dyadic power terms of winner-loser, predator-prey, abuser-victim.
Watch out, or they'll play you. They're all worse than animals.
Spirituality: Over time staff succumbs to cynicism, and a sense of alienation and futility.
No one looks out for me. True love, compassion and honesty only happen in the movies.
Nature of the Job:Experiencing monotonous routine intermingled with outbursts of hostility and conflict or traumatic stress in times of emergencies.
Role Conflict:Being caught between the dual responsibilities of custody (security) vs. rehabilitation.
Nature of the Organization: Working in large bureaucracies with a paramilitary structure and a culture of toughness.
Socio-cultural and Political Contexts: Not being respected as a branch of criminal justice, not having the impact of the workplace acknowledged, and being stigmatized by association (as people who deal with inmates.
Nature of Some of the Inmates: Managing offenders who are dangerous, ruthless, desperate, addicted, or mentally ill.
Negative Workplace Environment: Operating in an atmosphere of anger, hate, and fear, where there is lack of tenderness or compassion, and a lack of physical beauty.
Frustrating Work Situations:Perceiving that they or their co-workers are mistreated, bullied or provoked by other staff.
Overload: Short-staffing and overcrowding of inmates.
Exposure to Traumatic Material: Witnessing attacks and death of inmates or coworkers, and also being victimized themselves.
Sexual Harassment: Women, and at times men, encountering sexual harassment by co-workers. Also falsely accused employees undergoing lengthy and extremely stressful investigations.
Witnessing Policy Violations:Feeling torn and distressed, ambivalent about how to handle such situationsnot wanting to be “snitches,” yet knowing they must put security first and report the infractions.
Damaged Core Beliefs About Key Psychological Needs
The above conditions (and those listed at the end of the article) result in the frustration of seven key psychological needs and distorted beliefs about their satisfaction.
Physical Safety - Staff is chronically overly vigilant and expects to encounter danger on and off the job. Don't EVER let your guard down. Must not relax!
Emotional Safety - Staff fears others will use any admission of vulnerability against them. They kick you when you're down. They love to ridicule those different from them.
Trust - Staff is overwhelmingly suspicious of others' motives and believes no one is dependable. They'll never come through for me. I have only myself to depend on.
Power - Staff strives to maintain control and to win, have their way, in all situations. I must always, always, always stay in control!
Respect - Staff comes to believe that no one respects them. They in turn express scorn for others. They're all useless losers. Or, I'm just a number, a warm body to them.
Connection - Staff becomes comfortable living behind wallsphysically and emotionally. If you don't get close, you don't get hurt. So keep your guard up.
Meaning - Staff concludes that their life and efforts are without value and without meaning.What I do makes no difference. It will not get better. It's all useless.
Self-management and Interpersonal Impairment
Additionally, staff ends up affected in their ability to manage their emotions and impulses. They may experience reduced self-awareness, emotional numbing, dissociation, and/or out-of-control outbursts. To cope with their emotions, staff may engage in addictive behaviors or resort to rigid, forceful or otherwise ineffective problem-solving techniques. Apathy, indifference, and giving up on oneself are not far behind, with destructive boundary violations and disregard for consequences to their actions. Relationships often end up being based on control, intimidation, or abuse of power.
Not surprisingly, the changes that stem from Corrections Fatigue affect staff work performance, staff retention and turnover, health and wellness, and personal relationships.
So far we discussed the negative impact of correctional work. However, the cumulative transformative effect on staff can result in positive changes as well. This is determined by the meaning people assign to their experiences and the steps they take to “detoxify”correct damaged thought patterns and de-stress. Corrections Fulfillment can be experienced as personal growth, through skill building, character development, and innovative work strategy development. It can also be enjoyed through making a positive difference, due to impacting people's lives positively (other staff or inmates).
Correctional employees who enjoy Corrections Fulfillment exhibit the following core beliefs in relation to their frame of reference.
I'm more than my job. I'm not defined by my job.
I make choices that preserve my integrity and make it possible for me to live in my skin comfortably.
I like myself. I'm good enough. It's OK to be human.
I'm cautious, but not paranoid.
I try to assess each person and situation individually as much as possible.
There ARE good people out there.
Some people DO get better.
I am loved.
I am not alone in the universe.
I am not in charge of the universe.
I value HOPE, OPTIMISM, KINDNESS, and COMPASSION.
What I do matters. It DOES make a positive difference.
The ABC's of Corrections Fulfillment at the Personal Level
1. Awareness, Acknowledgment and Accountability Becoming and staying aware of one's inner experience in an objective, non-critical way. This needs to be linked to confiding in trusted others and seeking help from appropriate sources as warranted.
Setting aside non-destructive transition time from work to home life
Keeping a balance between work and rest, and between work and play/distractions
Keeping a balance between seriousness and laughter
Keeping a balance between sternness and compassion
Nurturing personal relationships
Building and maintaining a healthy community-based support system
Nurturing respect-based and compassion-based relationships with co-workers
Making time for self-care
Making time for de-stressing and renewing activities
Practicing interpersonal communication skills
Practicing positive meaning-making and optimistic reframing
Challenging and correcting negative core beliefs
Maintaining professional boundaries and “repairing” any damage to them
5. Emotional Intelligence Skills
Acquiring and practicing self-management skills, such as self-awareness, and self-control
Acquiring and practicing people management skills, such as empathy, bond-building, conflict management, and teamwork.
Tools for Increasing Corrections Fulfillment at the Organizational Level
The tools for corrections fulfillment involve maintaining workplace conditions that promote the satisfaction of the seven key needs for physical and emotional safety, trust, power, respect, connection and meaning. This may involve being reliable, affirming staff, seeking their input, demonstrating genuine caring for them or inspiring them. Corrections Fulfillment also stems from addressing the factors presented above that contribute to Corrections Fatigue.
1Finn, P. (2000). Addressing correctional officer stress: Programs and strategies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
2Saakvitne, K.W. and Pearlman, L.A. (1996). Transforming the pain: A workbook on vicarious traumatization. New York: Norton.
Other factors contributing to Corrections Fatigue:
Lack of Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity
Inaccurate reading of verbal and non-verbal communications or behaviors of inmates from unfamiliar cultures, resulting in misunderstandings and mistakes or in staff getting penalized.
Being faced with highly complex interpersonal exchanges, or life or death split-second decisions, after a few weeks at a Training Academy and additional hours of annual training on select subjects.
Co-workers Personality Style
Walking on eggshells due to some employees' dysfunctional personality styles that stir up fear, resentments, division or chaos.
Defensive Coping Styles
Avoiding distressing emotions or circumstances by engaging in superficial activities or distractions, denying the existence of a challenge, or aggressing against others.
Past Personal History
Having been exposed to traumatic circumstances outside of corrections without having had professional treatment or other healing interventions.
Current Personal Stressors
Experiencing severe stressors at home such as mounting debt, sickness, separation or divorce.
Lack of Effective Support Systems
Aiming to be “Supermen” and “Wonder Women” at work and at home, keeping others at arms' length, denying their need for assistance, and rejecting help.
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