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The Best Defense May Indeed Be a Good Offense - Part I
By Caterina Spinaris & Gregory Morton
Published: 06/05/2017

Prison cells

The following is the first of a two part article.

In Desert Waters’ signature course “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™” (CF2F), we repeatedly emphasize that wellness interventions designed to bring staff from work-related Fatigue to Fulfillment are a two-way street in an organization. That is, to maximize the probability of successful outcomes, interventions must be BOTH bottom-up AND top-down.

By bottom-up, we mean self-care and other health-promoting activities and behaviors that individual staff can practice on their own, independently of anyone else, on and off the job.

By top-down, we mean programs, resources, and system-wide policies instituted and implemented by the organization to promote employee wellness.

Bottom-up, individual-focused activities are about what employees can do themselves - and that no one else can do for them. They and only they can make these behaviors happen, and often only they know if they have disciplined themselves enough to follow through with these activities.

Individual activities—bottom-up—include good sleep hygiene; healthy nutrition; regular physical exercise; avoidance of substance abuse; engaging in breathing, stretching and other types of relaxation and mindfulness exercises; applying anger and anxiety management techniques; practicing effective interpersonal skills; and engaging in social and/or spiritual types of activities that give them joy and that confer meaning to their lives.

Organizational, top-down activities are those most directly accomplished by agency leadership through a broad variety of system-wide approaches. Examples of these are strategic well-being initiatives, messaging about and recognition of Fatigue issues, specifically-targeted training courses, intentional role modeling, new policies that address the issue, management performance objectives and evaluation criteria, budget and resource allocations, creation of new positions—such as wellness coordinators, staff psychologists or staff chaplains, and as always, increased staffing levels.

In other words, giving employee well-being the policy-level decision-making status equal to such traditional concepts as safety and security.

This could happen by measuring staff well-being programs in a pre-post manner to ensure return on investment; by requiring that staff training and literature on self-care and resilience-promoting behaviors be added to an agency’s employee development catalog; by offering confidential peer support, Employee Assistance Programs and other mental health and wellness services (if they don’t currently exist, or improving access to them if they do); by carefully designed programs that increase family member understanding of the challenges of the job; by changes in policies and procedures, where possible, to mitigate the impact of inherent stressors (such as creative staff-focused work scheduling emphasizing a reduction in mandatory overtime or constantly expanding caseloads); and perhaps even by advocating for the notion that staff well-being is as crucial to agency effectiveness as are successful offender programs.

And this is where a good offense becomes the best defense. In some ways, several of the bottom-up approaches can be considered “defensive” and reactive maneuvers—figuring out ways to cope, after the fact, with the negative effects of exposure to inevitable work-related stressors. (Although it is also true that some reactive self-care behaviors may act as preventative “inoculation” strategies to increase staff’s future resilience, if repeated over time.)

Top-down, organizational strategies, can be both “defensive”—such as, for example, the provision of a protocol for staff support following exposure to traumatic incidents—but, very importantly, they can also be “offensive.” This happens when the organization proactively puts in place policies and procedures (P&P) to lessen the presence or negative effects of anticipated work stressors. When such P&P are used effectively, staff do not have to expend (as much) energy trying to recover from the negative aftermath of workplace stressors, simply because there were supports already in place that they could recognize and count on, and perhaps even that they were not exposed to them in the first place or were exposed to a lesser degree. That is, organizational strategies can be preventative, and as such they can be invaluable. As the folk adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

We at Desert Waters maintain that both these approaches are important and necessary. When contrasted with one another, effective top-down organizational strategies would seem to carry more weight—be even more critical than individual ones (ALTHOUGH BOTH ARE NEEDED), simply because of the energy-savings and the reduction of damages. It makes sense to focus on fixing the leaky faucet, instead of just continually mopping up puddles on the floor.

Interestingly, we find reinforcement for this top-down/bottom-up strategic solution approach in recent research into the medical profession. Three meta-analysis* studies of the tools used to mitigate physician burnout** address the same dynamic. The first paper[1] analyzed research results from 52 studies that included responses from 3630 physicians, and the second paper[2] used results from 19 individual studies of 1550 physicians. The third, and largest, study drew important conclusions about professional effectiveness, thereby linking to the question: Is Fatigue/burnout mission-critical? Their answer is: definitely yes!

As these studies show, burnout among physicians seems to be a rampant reality, frequently measured in terms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced sense of accomplishment. That is, there is abundant evidence that physician burnout is a commonly occurring outcome to the challenges of the medical profession — just as Corrections Fatigue is for corrections staff.

As described in these articles, physician burnout can be seen as referring to the combined outcome of what we at Desert Waters call organizational and operational stressors. (Physician burnout studies do not typically address traumatic stressors—which is the third group of stressors that we propose contributes to Corrections Fatigue.)

So what does the physician burnout meta-analysis research show?

Tune in next week to find out in the conclusion: "The Best Defense May Indeed Be a Good Offense - Part II."

This article as been reprinted with permission from the March 2017 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

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.

Gregory Morton serves as Training Manager at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. Prior to that he worked for Oregon State Corrections nearly his entire adult life—a total of more than 34 years—after graduating from Oregon State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. He started his career at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as an academic counselor in 1975, and progressed to Staff Training / Employee Development shortly thereafter. Greg served as the department’s Leadership Program Manager and as Staff Training Administrator until 2006. He was the ORDOC’s Labor Relations Administrator until he retired in 2009. His concern for the professional and life skills of the corrections workforce has been his motivation throughout his career.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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