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Stress and Coping in Correctional Settings: Some New Research on Canadian Correctional Workers

Correctional workers have often been characterized as being exposed to particularly high levels of stress. Researchers have become interested in studying the situations that lead to stress in correctional settings and the ways of coping that promote job satisfaction and performance. Research advances in this area can have important implications for correctional officer recruitment, the design of training programs that will help officers cope with stressful situations, and the development of effective management practices to limit the number of stressful events that occur.

An important study completed recently by Gareth Hughes, Psychologist at the District Parole Office in Kingston, Ontario, sheds some light on how Canadian correctional workers define work-related stress and what they do to combat it. Hughes interviewed 109 front-line correctional workers at one medium and two maximum security institutions located in Kingston. The correctional staff who volunteered for the study included correctional officers, educational and shop instructors, and general labour and service workers. All of the participants in the study were engaged in duties that involved working with offenders. The nature of job stress, stress-coping patterns, personality attributes, life and job satisfaction, work performance and health status were among the characteristics that Hughes measured in the study. Health information was collected from family physicians, and job performance data were obtained from personnel files.

The correctional workers in Hughes' sample averaged 41 years of age and had been employed by the Correctional Service of Canada for an average of 12 years. As a group, they exhibited a high degree of domestic stability, with 84% indicating that they were married or living common law and 82% reporting that they owned their homes. The level of educational achievement of the group was also judged to be high: 95% had completed grade 10 or above, 34% had completed some college education, and 6% held university degrees. Forty-six percent of the workers were smokers, and for the most part their alcohol consumption patterns were moderate.

Two questions were posed to each of the participants in the study: What are the sources of stress in the work environment? Which of these stressors is most stressful?

Although more than 75% of the sample mentioned that their physical work environments resulted in stress, only 2% admitted that the environment caused them the most stress. Similarly, about half of the sample reported shift work and schedules to be stressful, but only 3% regarded these problems as a major source of stress.

The situations correctional workers found most stressful were primarily interpersonal. For example, as the figure shows, management problems (e.g., inconsistency and lack of support) were rated as the single most serious source of stress by the largest number of staff. Although only 39% of the staff viewed managers as a source of stress, 27% suggested that managers were the most significant source of stress they encountered on the job. It is interesting to note that while only about 40% of staff viewed management as a source of stress, the majority of workers who did check this category perceived management as the most stressful feature of their work environment. The next most serious sources of stress were related to dealings with inmates and co-workers. Boredom was also mentioned as the greatest source of stress by a substantial number of correctional workers.

Figure 1
Figure 1
In terms of the relationship between stress and other areas of functioning, close to one third of the respondents said that work-related stress caused them serious family problems.

The most frequently reported method of coping with stressful situations at work was "distancing". According to Hughes, distancing involves rationalizing a situation or endorsing the view that nothing can be done about it. "Planful problem solving", which implies an ability to take an objective approach to solving the problem in a series of steps, was the next most common technique adopted in the face of stressful occurrences at work, Many workers also sought practical or emotional support to help them deal with stressful situations.

Hughes rated all the workers on their overall coping effectiveness, based on their answers to the various questions. Generally, the sample showed a healthy capacity to cope with stress, with 14% obtaining the maximum score on the coping effectiveness ratings. The best copers were those correctional workers who used planned solutions to their work problems and sought the support of others. They rarely reacted to immediate situations and usually applied foresight in attempting to understand a problem. In comparison to poor capers, the most effective copers were less likely to blame others for the stress they experienced at work. Poor copers viewed problem situations at work as highly distressing events. This group also spent less time socializing during non-work time and demonstrated less involvement with hobbies or active leisure pursuits.

The ability to cope effectively with work stress was also related to a number of personality characteristics. Those correctional workers who coped most effectively expressed a high level of positive feeling, possessed a sense of coherence about their lives, scored lower on a scale designed to measure irrational beliefs, and reported good health. Not surprisingly, good copers also reported high levels of satisfaction with their jobs, and their job performance ratings were significantly higher than those of poor copers.

Although more research must be conducted in the area of stress and coping among Canadian correctional workers, Hughes' results have important implications for managers. If managers, inmates and co-workers were perceived as the major sources of stress by a substantial number of staff, perhaps there should be specific training goals for these staff to help them cope more effectively with the interpersonal difficulties they encounter on the job. Nearly half of this sample of correctional workers reported that their work was boring, and 12% found boredom to be the most stressful part of their jobs. Managers may need to give more attention to helping correctional workers cope with boredom and explore new methods for improving staff interaction to sustain enthusiasm in the face of challenging work circumstances.