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Compassion Fatigue and Corrections Officers
By Andrew Nolen, Officer, MSCJ/FP
Published: 01/03/2011

Burned out Working in Corrections is an interesting occupation to say the least. When encountering friends or family who find out for the first time that you work in corrections the first question raise is always “is it like the movies”. The truth of the matter is that in most instances Corrections can be boring for the most part, exciting for some of it and always very stressful.

Unfortunately the corrections profession has the dubious distinction of being one of the most stressed out jobs in law enforcement. Studies have shown that the work environment affects correctional staff and with this are higher levels of job stress with negative outcomes including; death, health problems, illness, mental health problems, social problems and decreased job performance (Paoline III, Lambert, & Hogan, 2006). Alarmingly Correctional Officers die far sooner than average and have a higher than expected likelihood of: hypertension, heart attacks, ulcers, and other stress related illnesses (Paoline III, Lambert, & Hogan, 2006). These have been accounted for the probability of an overall lack of job satisfaction and can lead to; increased absenteeism, turnover intent, and actual turnover among correctional staff. Low levels of job satisfaction have also been linked to burnout (Paoline III, Lambert, & Hogan, 2006).With job stress there is job burnout and this ultimately leads to a little known concept of compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is defined as “the formal caregivers reduced capacity or interest in being empathic or bearing the suffering of clients and is the natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experience or suffered by a person” (Adams, Boscarino, & Figley, 2006). It is the “reduced capacity or interest in being empathic” that we can distinctly attribute to Corrections Officers.

In Corrections we face hardened criminals on a day to day basis in shifts that may stretch from eight to sixteen hours at a time. During these hours Officers go head on with inmates as they face their stressors and attempt to control there own throughout their shift. Now if it isn't stressful enough that we know what the inmates are capable of add in a cornucopia of other stressors that come from home, coworkers and from administration. Then we find that most officers tend to be walking time-bombs.

Once an Officer has reached the stage in his career in which all the stressors has culminated to a point beyond their capabilities they tend to become what I call an Empty C.O.. What this means is that the Officer disassociates themselves from those around them and eventually comes to work in body but not in mind. Therefore, they are empty when at work. We have all seen this condition when an Officer is no longer the “go getter” and can eventually care less about why they are there or why they should even care. Ultimately just completing the goal of “doing my eight and hitting the gate”. This condition can be very dangerous in insurmountable ways. It is not good for the Officer, their friends, their family, their coworkers, or even the inmates.

There are two major factors at work when an Officer finds themselves in the burnout stage. The first is what is known role conflict in which the Officer finds themselves in a position in which the have one or more roles to play that go at odds with each other. Most generally one would save this description for the nursing staff of an institution in which they receive their education on the premise of helping others, however, when placed in an institution they find themselves in conflict with their basic fundamentals in comparison with the enforcing the rules and regulations of an institution. This can further be extended to an Officer that may have multiple roles that incorporates security and a caring role such as a crisis negotiator or hostage negotiator. Most often the Officer does take on more roles than that and includes roles outside of the institution. The complexities of making the role change once outside the institution are dramatic for some Officers, however, most Officers do make the change with ease and do not show their emotional stress to their loved ones.

The second factor in job burnout is what role ambiguity. This condition is when the officer no longer understands their function or role in the institution. This comes from a variety of reasons but most generally from a dysfunctional role on the part of administration when they place undo hardship on the officers through the changing of rules and regulations. These changes are the type of changes that have no rhyme nor reason for them other than the simple fact of change.

Fortunately, this process can be eliminated through ACA accreditation. By keeping with these standards the institution will make changes with ease. However, it is up to the administrators to make sure that all job changes are gradually phased in and communications remain open with those Officers that are on that job regularly.

Overall is up to the Officer themselves to manage their stressors to the best of their ability. It is not disgraceful to seek outside help and even counseling to help make the transition. However, for those that do see the changes made in their coworkers must take the steps necessary to ensure they do not fall further into the cloud they are under. Do not be afraid to offer help in anyway. That is what we as Corrections professionals are here for to help each other.

If you feel that you may have the signs or symptoms of depression or are not sure click on the links below and take the Zung Depression Test.






Adams, R. E., Boscarino, J. A., & Figley, C. R. (2006). Compassion Fatigue and Psychological Distress Among Social Workers: A Validation Study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry , 103-108.

Paoline III, E. A., Lambert, E. G., & Hogan, N. L. (2006). A Calm and Happy Keeper of the Keys. The Prison Journal , 182-205.

Editor' note: Andrew Nolen has been a Correctional Officer for over 14 years and is currently working towards his Masters in Forensic Psychology. Over the years he has worked in both Medium and Close security institutions and has been a member of the Special Response Team. Andrew is currently a Crisis Negotiator with interests in Gang investigations and Religious Studies.

Other articles by Nolen


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  7. CO CONCEP on 12/09/2011:

    Im an officer in ny.. Last night we lost another officer to a heart attack.. In 10 years we have lost 5 officers and had about 7 heart attacks. I was wondering if anyone knows of any stress management program for corrections. Im vice president of COBA in my county and looking for help.. Thanks

  8. dpdpar5 on 01/09/2011:

    Excellent insite. Great article and well written. There is no doubt that burnout is a real and present issue concerning officer preformance given the complexities of such a potentially dangerous profession. You did briefly discussed role ambiguiy. This results usually from a lacking training program. One area of our profession that I have noticed is suffering is training. When I say comprehenive I mean training the officer in ALL ASPECTS that will encompus and or result from the job. If we did a better job at developing our staff so many other problematic issues would resolve themselves. Corrections administrators must re-define thier professional paradigm. These must become an administrative concerns in policy establihment. If we are truely going to achieve excellence and high preformance an examination of goverance must be explored. These problems have been allowed to run out of control too long. I enjoy your writing. However, I would like it if you used some of your own experiences on the job. I know you must have alot to draw from. GOOD ARTICLE Daniel P. Downen M.S. AJ/S

  9. DATS168 on 01/06/2011:

    I am fairly new to corrections. Many of my coworkers are burnt out. They don't describe themselves that way but seem to hate their jobs (some voice it.) They are very negative and angry toward inmates, even when the inmates are not challenging their authority. It seems there is a lot of yelling and profanity and anger displayed (by staff, not inmates). I understand the need to nip any oppositional behaviors in the bud, but this goes over the top. How can a person be supportive of coworkers who are in this state? As a newer coworker. I think any suggestion of counselling would be met with anger. I am concerned because I see the potential for inmates' hostility and resentment to grow into aggression toward staff. Thoughts?

  10. prznboss on 01/05/2011:

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