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Metal Fatigue as an Analogy for Corrections Fatigue
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 04/30/2012

Metal fatigue In our signature training From Corrections Fatigue™ to Fulfillment, we talk about Corrections Fatigue being analogous to metal fatigue. To understand what we mean by that we need to comprehend a little about what materials engineers call “metal fatigue.” Let’s see what Wikipedia says about metal fatigue, and examine how the concept of Corrections Fatigue parallels that phenomenon metaphorically.

In materials science, fatigue is the progressive and localized structural damage that occurs when a material … is subjected to repeated loading and unloading.

If the loads are above a certain threshold, microscopic cracks will begin to form at the surface. Eventually a crack will reach a critical size, and the structure will suddenly fracture.

The shape of the structure will significantly affect the fatigue life; square holes or sharp corners will lead to elevated local stresses where fatigue cracks can initiate.

Round holes and smooth transitions … are therefore important to increase the fatigue strength of the structure. Downloaded 3/26/12, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatigue_(material)

According to Wikipedia, metal fatigue is progressive, that is, it gets worse if the metal continues to be loaded (stressed) over and over again within an acceptable range of stress. Those loads are initially well tolerated. For quite a while the metal structure subjected to them withstands them without any apparent negative consequences. That is exactly how I envisage the process of Corrections Fatigue. The impact of work-related stressors accumulates gradually, at first not seeming to leave its mark on staff, but becoming worse as the exposure to stressors continues to be repeated.

Metal fatigue happens through repeated loading and unloading—stressing the metal over and over by adding stress, removing it, then adding stress again, and so on. In the case of Corrections Fatigue, staff experience stressors followed by relief (e.g., at the end of a confrontation, at the end of a forced cell move, at the end of their shift, or at the end of their work week), only to re-experience the stressors again at a later time. The critical ingredient here is the relentless repetition of cycles of loading and unloading, stressing and de-stressing. Metal fatigue does not happen instantly, and neither does Corrections Fatigue.

Interestingly, in the case of metal fatigue the same outcome (cracks) can happen whether it is caused by many cycles of low loading being repeatedly applied to a metal structure or after a few cycles of high loading. Along the same lines, Corrections Fatigue can set in to a significant degree after many years of working in a low-stress corrections environment or after a few years in a high-stress facility, such as a maximum security institution. In the same vein, the cumulative effect of Corrections Fatigue after years of low-grade frustrations and minor incidents may be similar to the impact of exposure to a handful of high-intensity events, such as a riot. For example, staff may end up being overly vigilant, prone to anger outbursts and mistrusting of others in either case. To use another analogy, whether a meal is cooked in a slow cooker, a regular oven or a microwave, it still gets cooked—even if the texture of the food may vary depending on the cooking method.

Metal fatigue is localized to the part of the metal that is being loaded repeatedly. Similarly, Corrections Fatigue tends to affect a person in an area that is most impacted. For example, if the stressor is in the area of supervisor-employee relationships, staff’s core beliefs about people in authority over them become negative and interpersonal clashes may follow. If the stressor is in the area of physical safety failures, people are likely to develop negative expectations and concerns about their physical safety and feel anxious and tense while at work.

The effects of metal fatigue are summed up as “structural damage,” that is, changes that are fundamental, as they affect the very structure of the metal. Similarly, Corrections Fatigue produces enduring negative changes in the very basics of the “self” or “personality” of staff—“personality damage,” if you will.

If the loads are above a certain threshold, microscopic cracks will begin to form at the surface. Eventually a crack will reach a critical size, and the structure will suddenly fracture.

Metal fatigue results in wear and tear in a metal structure if the loads exceed a certain limit and frequency of loading and unloading. Similarly, in the case of Corrections Fatigue, when work-related stressors exceed a certain level, they start leaving their mark on people’s bodies, emotions, beliefs and thought processes. Past a certain point, they begin to cause “cracks” that are hard to see at first but which nevertheless are very real. As the stressors continue and the cracks keep growing, they become more noticeable. Employees may observe, for example, that they have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep even when they feel exhausted. People close to them may make observations such as, “You are always so short and gruff,” or “You have been drinking much more hard liquor lately,” or “You don’t want to do anything with us anymore.” The person’s ability to maintain their equilibrium physically, psychologically and spiritually becomes disrupted, and typical coping strategies no longer work. Regrettably, destructive strategies may emerge instead to take their place.

In the case of metal fatigue, a sudden fracture happens after months or even years of silently growing microscopic cracks. In the case of Corrections Fatigue, when self or personality “cracks” reach a critical mass, the person may experience a “meltdown” in a variety of possible ways, such as rage outbursts, aggressive behavior, depression, post-traumatic stress—or worse.

The shape of the structure will significantly affect the fatigue life; square holes or sharp corners will lead to elevated local stresses where fatigue cracks can initiate. Round holes and smooth transitions … are therefore important to increase the fatigue strength of the structure.

The shape of a metal structure can protect it from metal fatigue—slow the destructive process down, or it can render the structure more susceptible to metal fatigue by providing focal points where the stresses are localized. Similarly in the case of Corrections Fatigue a person’s habitual way of thinking and handling stressors may act as either a protective factor, countering the toxic build-up of Corrections Fatigue influences, or as a liability that augments Corrections Fatigue effects. For example, employees who are rigid, harsh, angry, aggressive or vindictive are likely to suffer the cumulative effects of repeated stress faster and to a greater degree than employees who “roll” with life’s challenges with effective interpersonal skills and a positive outlook. The latter are people who are helpful to others, who pay attention to what is going well in their lives and are grateful for that, and who adapt to change by anticipating good things. These positive skills may be part of an employee’s repertoire prior to their hiring on in corrections or they can be acquired through formal or informal training.

Repeated implementation of positive strategies such as the ones noted above increases corrections staff’s resilience, their ability to bounce back (to some degree at least) after repeated exposure to workplace stressors. Positive strategies are the “secret ingredient” that helps transform stressors into personal growth—the pain leading to gain. We at Desert Waters are committed to the continual development of materials based on clinical experience, training and research of this population, as well as Positive Psychology principles. Our aim is to assist individual corrections staff and their organizations in their journey from Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment. In the battle against Corrections Fatigue, every step in the right direction counts!

Corrections.com author, Caterina Spinaris Tudor, is the Executive Director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO, www.desertwaters.com) and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She works with correctional employees and their families, addressing the unique demands of the correctional workplace and its toll on staff and families. The mission of DWCO is to increase the occupational, personal, and family well-being of staff of all disciplines within the corrections profession.

Visit the Caterina Tudor page

Other articles by Tudor:


  1. jamestown0509 on 05/03/2012:

    It's a serious problem but she is not correct in comparing corrections to metal fatigue at all, that's a very poor and lax way to explain what the real issue is STRESS. Obviously this person has never worked or even been in a jail of any kind so writing this article doesn't even come close to what real officers do.

  2. Fleet Maull on 05/02/2012:

    This article addresses a very serious problem in corrections with many serious health and well being as well as financial impacts. Mindfulness training and specifically the Mindfulness Based Emotional Intelligence (MBEI) training we are currently piloting for correctional counselors, discharge planners and probation and parole officers in the Rhode Island DOC goes along way to address the issues raised by Ms. Tudor, enhancing resilience, emotion regulation, and attention while decreasing stress. The RI DOC pilot program is a six month staff development program including training in MBEI and Motivational Interviewing (MI). Fleet Maull Lead Trainer Center for Mindfulness in Corrections Prison Mindfulness Institute www.prisonmindfulness.org fleet@prisonmindfulness.org

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