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Hazmat Suit for the Soul—Part 3 of 3
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 11/30/2015

Power A prior version of this article was printed on Corrections.com January 03, 2011. It has been updated and reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 12, Issue 11.

Continued from the September 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis. A prior version of this article was printed in the Correctional Oasis, January 2010 issue.

In Part 2 of this article, a distinction was made between true resilience and what has been labelled as “negative resilience,” in relation to military personnel and first responders [1]. Negative resilience is believed to be the result of avoidance strategies, such as denial and dissociation, and its façade of toughness can collapse as undealtwith psychological pressures mount. Therefore, the quest for solid and enduring resilience is of primary importance, as literally lives may depend on it.

What can be done to help increase the resilience of the public safety workforce and more specifically that of corrections staff? Doing so would very likely lead to improvements in staff morale, and in the lowering of sick leave rates, work-related disability claims, and staff turnover.

To begin with, what is meant by resilience? As stated in Part 2, Desert Waters’ researchers defined resilience as a degree of immunity to health-degrading consequences of high-stress events (Denhof & Spinaris, 2015). So, psychological resilience is not viewed as an all-or-nothing construct—either present or absent. Rather, it is defined in relative terms, as resistance to the manifestation of negative health signs and conditions despite exposure to events that tend to affect health adversely. For example, highly resilient corrections staff may still exhibit some negative health signs following exposure to high-stress events, but these signs may be relatively few, compared to what is exhibited by staff with less resilience.

To use the hazmat suit analogy once again, staff may still suffer some effects of toxic exposure, and their hazmat suit may show some tears, but these might be significantly less than what they could have suffered had they not been wearing their hazmat suits.

Effective hazmat suits for the soul can be provided through two primary means: (a) strategies which target prevention, and (b) strategies which target intervention.

Prevention methods are inoculation-type, long-term approaches, where lifestyle strategies are taught and skills are trained before high-stress workplace events happen. Prevention involves embracing health-promoting practices as habitual behaviors that foster health and wellness, with the goal to neutralize negative consequences of stressors. These methods include ways of thinking that counter negativity and boost optimism. Prevention methods also involve strategies for taking care of one’s physical, psychological and spiritual health and overall well-being.

Intervention methods, on the other hand, involve strategies to counter negative consequences of high-stress events and promote wellness following exposure to them—that is, after a high-stress incident. Such strategies may be brief and may be implemented short-term. They are easier to engage in if the groundwork has already been laid to some degree through long-term and habitual resilience-promoting behaviors. Staff members who are well-versed in practicing positive behaviors prior to a high-stress incident are most likely going to be at an advantage compared to staff members who are not. If the analogy of a 4-mile race is used, staff members whose lifestyle includes regular use of resilience-promoting behaviors are starting at, for example, 30 yards closer to the finish line than staff members who have not been practicing such behaviors regularly.

Research studies have helped identify several prevention-type protective factors that increase positive resilience in the face of traumatic or other high-stress exposure [2]. Some of these factors are social connectedness, effective emotional regulation, identifying positive aspects of negative situations, and other types of positive thinking.

Through Desert Waters’ research studies we have also identified four categories of behaviors (factors) that are specifically associated with resilience in the corrections workforce. These behaviors are measured by the Corrections Staff Resilience Inventory™ [3] (CSRI, Denhof & Spinaris, 2014), a psychometrically sound assessment instrument that provides information on the extent to which an individual or an entire corrections workforce at an agency, a facility or office engages in these specific resilience-promoting behaviors. The categories of these behaviors are: (1) Supportive Staff Relationship Efforts; (2) Self-care Health Maintenance Efforts; (3) Confident/Perseverant Frame of Mind; and (4) Controlled/Logical Problem Solving.

What follows is a description of each of the four factors in some detail, and ways in which staff can practice behaviors associated with each factor in order to boost their resilience.
  1. Supportive Staff Relationship Efforts: This factor refers to the skill of building and maintaining effective social support systems among staff in the work-place. More specifically, it measures the degree to which staff rate themselves as being socially supportive of other staff. Desert Waters’ data show that offering support to fellow staff helps boost the resilience of the staff who provide the support. That is, interacting positively with coworkers has resilience-promoting effects on the staff who is being supportive.

    Examples of practical ways to offer support to colleagues at work are: behaving in ways that are friendly and respectful; asking how coworkers are doing and stopping long enough to listen (as work circumstances allow); making compassionate comments toward staff who seem down; acknowledging a job well done, staff improvement, or increases in staff’s efforts; looking for ways to assist coworkers upon completion of one’s own work; and thanking others for their assistance whenever it is offered. Such behaviors build stronger bonds among staff; increase staff's sense of psychological safety (which, we know through multiple studies, is woefully low in the corrections workforce); and reduce covert interpersonal tension and overt conflict among staff.

  2. Self-care Health Maintenance Efforts: This is the second factor that promotes resilience of the corrections workforce. This factor refers to staff tending to their physical, psychological, and social needs when off duty. Examples of practical ways for staff to boost their self-care efforts include: developing healthy transition strategies—both when returning home from work, and also when going back to work; maintaining life balance by detaching from the work’s mind-set when away from the workplace, and switching to family mode; engaging in pleasant activities; making it a priority to regularly spend quality and quantity time with significant others; following an adequate sleep regimen on a regular basis; and implementing healthy emotional regulation strategies to neutralize anger-generating thoughts.

  3. Confident/Perseverant Frame of Mind: This factor refers to the skill of effectively managing challenging circumstances at work through confidence that one is competent at handling these tasks, and by not giving up (quitting, walking away) when faced with challenges or obstacles. Examples of ways to practice a confident and perseverant frame of mind include: resolving to complete tasks even when it is difficult to do so, and maintaining that resolve in the face of adversity; using positive self-talk to motivate oneself to persevere during challenges; rehearsing and repeating one’s training until it becomes automatic, “muscle memory;” being ethical and behaving with integrity; and reminding oneself of the importance of being flexible and adapting to change.

  4. Controlled/Logical Problem-solving: This is the fourth factor of the CSRI that was found to boost the resilience of corrections staff. This factor refers to the skill of “keeping one’s wits about them” in spite of frustrations or disappointments; making every attempt to think logically during decision-making; and using the strategy of addressing complex situations incrementally, one section at a time. Examples of practical ways to help increase one’s logical problem solving and ability to maintain one’s self-control in the face of high-stress circumstances are: learning how to detach emotionally from challenging situations; reminding oneself that one cannot control everything, no matter how hard they may try; reminding oneself that mistakes are learning opportunities; reminding oneself of the importance of facing one’s fears and of proceeding in spite of them; using emotional regulation techniques; and dividing complex tasks into successive components, and tackling them one at a time.
Research evidence suggests that by practicing these behaviors at work and in one’s personal life, corrections staff can go a long way toward putting a hazmat suit together. And this will make it possible for them to be better able to confront adversity in the workplace, and to bounce back faster following highly-stressful incidents and conditions.

[1]Friedman, M., & Higson-Smith,, C. (2003). Building Psychological Resilience: Learning from the South African Police Service. In Paton, D., Violanti, J.M. & Smith, L.M., (Eds.), Promoting Capabilities to Manage Posttraumatic Stress: Perspectives on Resilience. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.
[2]Meredith, L.S., Sherbourne, C.D., Gaillot, S., Hansell, L., Hans V., Ritschard, H.V., Parker, A.M., & Wren, G. (2011). Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military. RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.
[3]Denhof, M.D. (2014). Corrections Staff Resilience Inventory.

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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