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Keeping your head in the game
By Steven C. Kelly, Director Jail and Court Services Bureau (Ret)
Published: 10/14/2013

Correctionsofficer One of the most important things an officer, in the corrections business, can do, is to keep their mental faculties clear; unfortunately, this is not always as easy as it sounds. There are several factors that impact your ability to do this. Some of these factors are stress, physical fitness, emotional well-being, and routine.

We all live with various levels of stress on a daily basis. Some stress is positive, such as taking a test for a job or position or getting married, and of course there is negative stress, such as when we fight with a loved one, when we, or someone we care about is sick, or maybe when we might be being pressured by a supervisor. What we do to mitigate the impact of stress is important - more on this later.

We, in corrections, spend a good portion of our time under some level of stress. The daily contact with inmates and the need to be aware and on guard is a primary source - dealing with the daily minutia such as cell checks, tier time, meal service, med call, visiting, and laundry exchange add another layer of tension. Responding to emergencies such as fights, medical emergencies, or smoke alarms adds an increased amount of adrenaline to our systems, which can even create biological changes to our bodies (Dr. Kevin Gilmartin PhD talks at length about the impacts of stress on our bodies and well-being in the book “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.”).

Unless we take proactive steps to deal with it, all of these sources of unresolved stress can build up in us over time and manifest itself in a variety of negative behaviors, which can also have a detrimental effect on our physical health and mental well-being.

A major factor of stress that is often overlooked by people is the manner in which we conduct our personal lives. The organizations that we work for go to great lengths to make sure that we come into this business with as little baggage as possible, but it seems that over time, a number of officers will cross the line into those gray areas that will impact, if not destroy their careers. The question is why?

In some instances, it is obvious that a given officer has issues with decision making, and just made a bad choice; however, in other instances, it almost seems as if the officer is driven to do things that are not in his or her best interest. Often times these cases are a manifestation of the unresolved stress that the officer is carrying. I have often wondered if the negative outcomes, in these situations, could have been different, or the whole situation avoided, if the officer had taken steps to mitigate the stress that he has worked under.

When we start in this line of work, we often have no clue as to what we will really be exposed to, and what the true impact of what we see and do, will have on our personalities. We often have misconceptions as to what corrections will be like, so we are not well prepared to cope with its effects. The academies that officers attend go a certain distance in preparing them for the work, and many touch on critical incident management training, but do they really prepare us for the long term and post-traumatic stress that most officers will undergo at some point during their careers.

When we witness another human being’s death, are involved in a traumatic incident, or simply responding to seeing negativity day in and day out, do those in the leadership roles in our organizations take steps to ensure that we are using the right behaviors to cope with the trauma?

There are few professions out there where a person is exposed to the ugliness of humanity on a regular basis – corrections is one of them. Not every dramatic situation should or will require emotional intervention and correctional staff are expected to be endure a certain amount of adversity, however, at some point, there will likely be a time that the officer will see or be involved in something that they will not be prepared to cope with. If this happens to you, how you deal with this can have a lasting impact on your career and effectiveness as an officer as well as your personal life.

Some of the negative behaviors that can be manifested are: alcohol abuse, infidelity, gambling addiction, physical and emotional abuse of a loved one, associating with felons and gang members, and even drug abuse. Sadly, I have seen each one of these behaviors in officers that I have worked with and supervised. I wish I could say that they were all saved from these destructive behaviors – some were disciplined, some were terminated, and several ended their lives by suicide. There are several positive ways that you can counteract the negative impact of stress, the first being your physical fitness.

Physical fitness is one of the key activities that a person can engage in in order to alleviate stress and keep the mind clear. An on-line article, published by the Mayo Clinic, titled “Exercise and Stress: Get Moving to Manage Stress” the writers state that 150 (just over 20 minutes per day) minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week will have a positive impact on the effects of stress; so, it is clear to see where a small personal investment can have a very positive payoff. If you are not exercising now, check with your doctor before starting a physical fitness program to ensure that you are taking the right steps to proactively protect your health. Emotional well-being is another critical piece of your overall mental health. You can help maintain a healthy emotional outlook in many ways – the first would be by having and maintaining friendships and personal relationships outside of work. A majority of the law enforcement world tend to associate only with those that they work with - we use reasons such as, “they (anyone who is not an officer) don’t understand what I do, I’m tired of hearing about the last time they got a ticket, they don’t trust me, they think all cops are the same – like what they see on TV.” While it is good to have a strong working relationship with our fellow officers, we are missing out on the community that we serve when we isolate ourselves from it. This can eventually result in us vs. them thinking.

What we do is hard, no doubt about it. We often see only the negative side of human behavior and if we are not careful we allow that to color our thinking about all people. In our daily work life, as a survival mechanism, we tend to focus on only the worst in people – it is important to remember that most of the people in the public are decent people and can brighten our perspective of the world.

Our personal relationships are a critical piece of our well-being. How we keep and maintain our relationships with our significant others has a big impact on how well we keep our mind clear. It is easy for us to take our work home and let our frustrations out on our on our families. We can become so fixated on a particular problem or issue that we let it distract us from having meaningful communications with our loved ones. The conflict can come into play when we vent toward our spouse and then do not feel as if they are as empathetic as we’d like them to be. We need to realize that home is not always the best place to try to resolve work matters. Work with your spouse to develop better communication strategies to keep you engaged with your family. If home problems become overwhelming, don’t try to power through it on your own - it is important to turn toward your resources, such as your Employee Assistance Program, clergy, or possible counseling.

Many people find that having spiritual connections and relationships, or practicing meditation, can be helpful in minimizing the impacts of what you have seen or experienced – this can be a very worthwhile habit if you find it beneficial.

Now more than ever, men and women are working together in our profession, and often in very close proximity and in semi isolation. There can be a tendency to develop inappropriate relationships under these circumstances that can forever alter or ruin your current relationship and/or career. Too often these liaisons become disastrous and can be avoided if we maintain awareness and develop some personal boundaries. Finally, routine. Routine is a performance killer and can lead to distraction and inattention. Day in and day out we do the same thing on a set schedule, often with little variation, other than which inmates names are on the roster. The monotonous nature of much of the work we do can easily lull us into a false sense of security with the result causing an officer to freeze or panic. We need to be prepared to deal with the unexpected and engage in “what if” thinking every day. This requires that we imagine various scenarios and then mentally walk ourselves through that response.

You need to consider every move and detail until you are satisfied that you have stayed as safe as possible and still maintained the security of the facility. You should review the policies and procedures of your organization and see how your thinking matches what is expected. With any luck your supervisors will be planning drills and challenging you and your team so that you are all are operating on a heightened level of readiness.

Another thought for consideration is to change up your routine whenever practical. Clearly you cannot rewrite the entire schedule for the institution, but you can mix up things to help keep you fresh and to keep the inmates off guard.

All of this is hard work, and it is work you have to personally pursue every day. But if your head is clear and you are engaged in your work, the life you may save, very well can be your own.

Corrections.com author, Steven C. Kelly served 25 years at Washoe County Sheriff’s Office retiring as a captain. His last post was as the Jail Director for the Ada County Sheriff's office in Boise, ID. He holds a master degree in Management from the University of Phoenix and attended the FBI National Academy in 2009.

Other articles by Kelly:


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