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More data, less stress
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 02/19/2007

Stress0219 02 The term “leftover stress data” might not sound very appealing, but for retired 1st Lt. Gary Cornelius of the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office in Virginia, these leftovers are a potentially excellent resource for corrections practitioners everywhere.

Cornelius sent surveys to 39 randomly selected correctional facilities throughout the country. They measured the levels of stress for COs on and off the job, reasons for their stress, their symptoms, and their coping strategies. He then used selections of this data in his 2005 book, Stressed Out! Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections. Now, with 523 surveys each comprised of 120 different questions, the study's researchers have a lot of leftover data to learn from.

“This data can give a lot more,” says Holly Stevens, a study researcher and adjunct instructor at George Mason University's Department of Administration of Justice. “We can help administrators make decisions on staff training, better communicate with staff, and understand what's going on in the workplace.”

What Cornelius and Stevens have from the data so far is an eye-opening look into the daily lives of COs. About forty-five percent of probation and parole officers reported feeling high amounts of stress while on-duty, compared to 26.5 percent of jail officers and twenty-three percent of prison officers.

“I thought that for jail and prison officers the percentage would have been higher,” Cornelius says. “I think the stress level on POs is due to deadlines, to pre-sentencing reports; they might have to go into offender neighborhoods and make home visits, and then there's the caseload factor. For a PO the job is always there.”

Cornelius, who has taught stress management classes for nearly 20 years, also believes that most COs will not admit they are high stressed.

“Some will say, ‘I don't have any stress.' To me, they don't want to talk about it because everyone in that line of work deals with stress. One of the most difficult lines of work is dealing with offenders,” he explains.

In addition to providing raw percentages, the survey also included sections for written feedback, which Cornelius believes may have the most potential for further investigation.

“This study gave people the chance to vent a little bit and say what they wanted to say, and there was a lot of venting,” Cornelius says.

A resounding theme across the 523 surveys was the demand for more training and better preparation to deal with stress. One survey responder wrote, “Our facility needs to offer more in the area of training for stress. At this time we have absolutely nothing on this and no one to turn to.”

Cornelius knows the power of stress management training for COs and how important it is to get more and better training programs in correctional facilities across the country.

“I've taught for four different academies and I know some colonels and majors that like the stress management training because it makes them better employees,” he says. “For an agency head to say, ‘We don't worry about stress,' means they don't know how many officers will retire early due to high blood pressure, how many angry employees will be accused of using excessive force on an inmate, or how much the divorce rate will go up among the staff because people are bringing the job home and they don't know how to vent in an appropriate way.”

Learning how to strengthen such training programs with innovative techniques is one of the goals of the expansion of the stress study. For example, the study found that the top two stress management techniques for COs were exercise and talking to friends. Stevens wants to break this information down even further, and compare the coping strategies of the COs who managed their stress well against those who did not.

“It won't really help people, if you don't cope well to know what strategies you use,” adds Stevens. “We have basic percentages of how many use deep breathing, etc., but it has to be how well do you cope in your daily life and personal life and are you effective enough to cope better - are you a good coper?”

Finding “good copers” and learning their strategies will be an important step, but the need for more stress training and support programs needs to be recognized and acted upon.

“It has to come from up top,” Cornelius says. “It has to come from agency heads and training instructors and academy directors. I know there is value in the training.”

Stressed Out! Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections presented by Gary Cornelius.

For more information, email Gary Cornelius at adjinstructor@aol.com

Related Resources:

From Fatigue to Fulfillment, 12/20/2006


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