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Promoting Psychological Safety
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 01/22/2018

Officer incident “I did not know when I became a Corrections Officer that conflict with fellow staff and supervisors would create such a hardship towards functioning as a professional.” ~ Anonymous

Over the years, staff from across the nation has reported to us that much of their work-related stress stems from their interactions with other staff - not with offenders.

This, in essence, is PREVENTABLE, AVOIDABLE stress. Staff have no control over what types of offenders they are assigned to manage. However, they do have control over how they relate to coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates.

One source of such avoidable stress among corrections employees involves staff undermining other staff’s psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a dimension that is extensively addressed in Desert Waters’ signature course, “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™” (CF2F). Psychological safety involves a need most of us have.

Its frustration adds to the accumulation of Corrections Fatigue, and its satisfaction contributes to Corrections Fulfillment.

Psychological safety refers to how emotionally comfortable we feel in social groups, such as in the workplace, based on how we expect to be treated by people in these settings.

In healthy workplace environments where psychological safety is flourishing, staff do not try to aggravate or hurt other staff by spreading negative rumors about them, perhaps because they do not like them, are jealous of them, are competing with them for a position or assignment, or because they are holding a grudge against them.

When psychological safety is robust, staff do not ridicule or put down other staff through the use of mean-spirited jokes or comments, making fun of other employees’ vulnerabilities or mistakes.

In such healthy workforce environments, staff do not “talk trash” about other staff in their absence. In fact, if someone puts an employee down, other employees would intervene and say that it is not right to tear into someone in their absence, when they are not there to defend themselves.

When psychological safety is prevalent, staff is reasonably confident that if they share a personal detail with another employee confidentially (information that has nothing to do with security or policy matters), asking them to keep it to themselves, the coworker will honor that confidence and not betray them by divulging their personal information to others.

Psychological safety forms the foundation of other key dimensions essential for corrections fulfillment, as taught in the CF2F course—trust, respect and connection. Without sufficient psychological safety, staff do not trust other staff, do not feel respected by them (and end up not respecting them in return), and do not feel connected with them as a team. So due to weakened psychological safety, division reigns among the troops, with the notion of teamwork amounting to empty words, an abstract “pie in the sky,” and not an experienced reality. Moreover, being disconnected from the team can easily result in employees feeling disempowered, as corrections staff depend on each other for their physical safety and to get the work done. As an end result, the job loses at least part of its positive meaning.

When psychological safety around other staff is on shaky ground, employees feel anxious and tense during their workday. They may be more concerned about getting hit by “friendly fire” than about managing offenders effectively. And as the tempers of uptight staff tend to be short, employees who feel psychologically unsafe around coworkers may end up lashing out at staff or offenders, overreacting to perceived provocations or annoyances—and potentially endangering their own physical safety or others’.

When psychological safety becomes seriously a casualty in a corrections workplace, staff may even come to believe that offenders are “safer” (and nicer) than other staff, and so they might gravitate toward offenders for social connection. Consequently, policy violations and overall physical safety end up becoming compromised.

When psychological safety is undermined, resulting staff injuries may not be visible, but they are just as real as physical wounds. Staff often talk about wanting all employees to go home safe at the end of their workday—referring to physical safety. How about making it at least as important of a goal for staff to go home psychologically safe at the end of their shifts as well?

What we want is for staff to go home every day after work with their bonds of trust to coworkers intact (if not strengthened), with a healthy sense of belonging on the team, and with their professional dignity intact, having been instructed or held accountable for their actions, but in respectful ways.

So, how about making it your resolution for 2018 to create a “psychologically safe zone” around you in relation to fellow staff, acting with consideration and sensitivity towards them as part of your overall professionalism?

This article as been reprinted with permission from the January 2018 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.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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