What can we do to prevent emotional burnout among correctional staff?

What can we do to prevent emotional burnout among correctional staff?

Emotional exhaustion or burnout experienced due to work overload harms employees and the organizations that employ them (Lin, 2013). As Maslach and Leiter (2008) pointed out, emotional “…exhaustion is not something that is simply experienced… it prompts actions to distance oneself emotionally and cognitively from one’s work, presumably as a way to cope.” Emotional burnout is not an end state – rather, it impacts decisions, behaviors, and health (see, for example, Lin, 2013). Significantly, correctional staff experience higher burnout rates than the general population and even police officers (Griffin et al., 2012; Hurst & Hurst, 1997, Keinan and Maslach-Pines, 2007). In fact, Correctional officers experience suicide rates that are 40–100% higher than those of police officers outside of prison (Ferdik F, Smith H, 2020.)

What does burnout in the correctional field look like?

A monumental amount of research and studies has been conducted in recent years focused on workplace factors and job characteristics that contribute to unusually high burnout rates. Some of the most critical factors include dual or multiple role responsibilities, overwork, inter-professional rivalries, poor social support, and limited decision-making (e.g., Lambert, Altheimer, & Hogan, 2010; Lambert & Hogan, 2010). Realistically, individual correctional workers have very little influence over the systemic factors that research has shown to contribute to burnout. Given that organizations and institutions are complex and change within them appears to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. So, what can be done to prevent burnout amongst correctional workers today? How can individuals be given some power over their wellness and resilience?

It is now widely understood that burnout affects people from numerous varied occupations. It negatively impacts their job satisfaction, commitment, absenteeism, turnover intent, and general life satisfaction (e.g., Maslach et al., 2001.) Correctional workers are not unique in their need for improved resilience, though they do experience an inordinate number of stressors and high levels of burnout. While the literature on strengthening resilience amongst correctional workers is minimal, the broader literature supports the notion that training can improve resilience.
A recent review of evidence (Carbone, 2020) on the primary prevention of mental health conditions (broadly, not specific to correctional environments) concluded:

“There is… very strong and consistent evidence from systematic reviews that personal skills-building programs that draw on health, clinical and positive psychology strategies and are delivered through … workplaces and online can increase protective factors such as healthy behaviors, social and emotional skills, self-care skills, and resilience, and prevent common mental health and substance use conditions.”

Effective interventions and prevention strategies that work in correctional environments

Rehabilitation efforts within the correctional field have migrated towards cognitive-behavioral interventions for the last two decades, yet very little has been done to offer staff cognitive-behavioral skills training. The broader resilience literature strongly suggests that training could protect staff who deliver programs to justice-involved individuals and those who secure the institutions where those services are delivered. The reasons why cognitive trainings have rarely been offered are unclear, but it is clear that resilience training can reduce burnout and its consequences.

The literature on effective interventions and prevention strategies in correctional environments is relatively meager. However, if we integrate the recommendations made in the literature for both the content and the process of ideal resilience training, a reasonably clear picture of an ideal program begins to emerge. To adequately protect or “inoculate” correctional staff against stress and burnout, the interventional program should:

  • Teach the role of helpful/harmful cognitions typically seen in correctional settings
  • Teach staff to “reframe” or rethink maladaptive cognitions
  • Focus on skills acquisition and skill rehearsal like:
    • problem-solving
    • relaxation
  • Enable and encourage the practice of the new skills and approaches
  • Offer trainings and/or support for families and significant others
  • Offer all of the above via flexible, adaptive training that adheres to proven practices, but allows customization of training to suit the needs of individual staff

What is the STRENGTH Corrections program?

STRENGTH Corrections, a program I co-developed with a multi-disciplinary team and the participation of Correctional Service Canada (CSC), Ontario Region, was a multi-year effort to remedy this oversight. STRENGTH Corrections is a training program that adheres to all six of the above-noted program content and process recommendations.

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STRENGTH is based in cognitive behavioral theory, evidence-consistent practices, and a need to create corrections-specific content comprehensible to all staff, irrespective of duties and level of seniority. The mandate was to create an easy-to-use program that would not consume excessive staff hours and would be self-sustaining. Even when highly enjoyable and impactful, short training programs tend to yield diminishing returns. Staff are often excited and optimistic about making changes, but these diminish over time. To address this issue, STRENGTH was created using a peer-support model that would gradually (through collaboration) impact the workplace culture. Additionally, the role of a STRENGTH “Champion” was created to ensure that the program would have local representatives who could serve as resources for their colleagues, ensuring proper use of the program.

In terms of the program’s breadth of coverage, in addition to the skills-focused training, resources would need to be made available to families and significant others. A “lifestyle” guide is included in the program to enable users to better self-regulate using skills such as mindfulness, gratitude journaling, mindful meditation, etc. The guidebook enables users to pick and choose which skills to develop and which are not for them.

A final component of the program, STRENGTH In Crisis, is a post-crisis debriefing that continues the themes of the original program and is peer-led. It forgoes what are now known to be harmful debriefing strategies and favors evidence-consistent secondary prevention, which is the prevention of escalation of any potentially harmful post-traumatic reactions. In effect, STRENGTH is the complete burnout prevention training package.

Learn more about MHS Public Safety’s STRENGTH Corrections program and enroll your team today.



About Dr. Bill Winogron

Dr. Bill Winogron is a senior clinical psychologist. His involvement with correctional work began with front-line clinical work in community corrections and went on to include program creation, training, custom curriculum development, and training of trainers. By theoretical orientation, Bill is a practitioner of cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBTs), particularly Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy, the original short-term CBT. He holds an Associate Fellowship at the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City.

Dr. Winogron has authored internationally-successful, evidence-based treatment programs (Anger and Emotions Management Program; CALM – Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage it; CALMER – the CALM Effective Relapse Prevention program; etc.), and has trained, mentored, and supervised students, graduate students, and correctional staff for much of his career. Additionally, Dr. Winogron has authored and facilitated training programs for organizations in Canada, the US, and the UK, both “classroom” and online, on a range of mental health topics.

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