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Research Summaries

Improving the mental health of correctional workers

Keywords: Mental Health, Organizational Stress

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Why was the study done?

Research has shown that work responsibilities impact correctional workers mental health and well-being. Some complications may be caused by exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events (PPTEs). Still, research shows that correctional workers experience work-life conflict, including stress that is time-based (shift work), role-based (shifting gears between work and home), and strain-based (emotional fatigue). Work-life conflicts, when coupled with organizational stressors, do affect workers mental health and well-being.

In recent years, there has been an increase in programs and supports for mental health, but structural barriers including stigma, lack of staff, limited human resources capacity, regular shift schedules, difficulty in identifying mental health issues, and gaps in mental health interventions have slowed improvement in correctional worker mental health.

While research has been increasing in the correctional worker field, limited attention is directed toward correctional workers experiences and interpretations. In the current study, authors looked to gather correctional workers’ views on the specific, direct, and practical solutions to mental health vulnerabilities in the correctional workplace.

What was done in the study?

Researchers collected data through a self-report survey given to provincial and territorial correctional workers before the COVID-19 pandemic (2018-2019). In the current study, the authors examined responses to the question, “Please tell us what changes in your current work environment could have a positive impact on your mental health.” The research team analyzed the responses of 870 correctional workers coding the responses to identify key themes.

What did we find out?

The correctional workers identified four areas where changes could improve their mental health.

  • Expanding Mental Health Resources
    1. Access to onsite treatment, for example, having a full-time psychologist in the building.
    2. Access to professionals specializing in the treatment of Operational Stress Injuries (OSI).
    3. A need for a clear mental health component to critical incident response.
    4. Services need to be ongoing and comprehensive (vs. episodic and reactive currently available).
    5. Caps on services are a barrier.
  • Changes to work structures and scheduling.
    1. Less altering between day/night shifts.
    2. Realistic timelines for part-time staff to become full-time with benefits and a predictable schedule.
    3. Time to leave to deal with family health and well-being needs or emergencies.
    4. Mental health days.
    5. Consider the need for mental health leave the same as leave for a physical injury to limit stigma and help workers care for their mental health.
  • Building positive relationships with management and staff solidarity
    1. Correctional workers felt their concerns were not acknowledged or understood by management.
    2. They felt management could have a greater presence in front-line work situations to help create more of a cohesive team.
    3. Promote open-door policies that allow workers to share concerns with supervisors freely.
    4. Correctional workers indicated there was also room for improvement between co-workers, including being kinder, having less negative interactions, and promoting conflict resolution.
    5. Workers indicated that organizations could promote good working relationships by giving continuity or control over their work partners. They also suggested peer-based mentoring (partnering new staff with experienced staff).
  • Improvement in the physical environment
    1. Adding or improving spaces intended to promote health and wellness activities onsite. Such areas could include quiet rooms, gyms, and healthy eating kitchens.

Where do we go from here?

Research has shown that organizational support can reduce adverse mental health impacts of work environments. The feedback from correctional workers highlights problem areas and the ideas they have to improve their mental health and well-being. Shifting from an individual to an organizational sense of responsibility for mental wellness remains a challenge. Changes like those suggested could lead to more effective handling of the growing issue of correctional workers’ mental health.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.

Original Study

Johnston, M.S., Ricciardelli, R. & McKendy, L. (2022). Improving the mental health of correctional workers: Perspectives from the field. Criminal Justice and Behavior.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited and reviewed by Barootes, B. & Ricciardelli, R.

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