Let’s Discuss Correctional Officer Burnout and the “Malignant Mantra”

In Corrections we have this saying, this malignant mantra that we’ve passed down from one generation of Correctional officers to the next.  However, this cure-all piece of advice, this one-size-fits-most message is incredibly misleading and undeniably damaging.

We use it when we see our fellow officers in distress, when they reach out for help, and when they are having trouble dealing with the weight that comes along with wearing a badge.  We deploy this phrase, this cliché and we tell them to “leave work at work and home at home”.

Now, suggesting to a fellow officer that all of their stress and their concerns can be curbed by “leaving work at work and home at home” is both ludicrous and irresponsible.

Look, I understand the importance of keeping your personal and your professional life separate.  For example, it’s probably not a good idea to share pertinent personal information with the inmate population.  Discussing where you live, where your children go to school, and where you and your significant other are going to dinner on Saturday night could put you and your loved ones in serious danger.

I also understand that there are things that happen inside the walls of a correctional facility that we will never talk about at home with normal people because we feel like we need to protect them from that environment.

So, when I’m talking about “leaving work at work and home at home” those aren’t the things that I’m talking about.

I’m talking about those situations that we can’t shake, those events that follow us around, those incidents that cling to our clothes and squat in our subconscious.  I think back to when I watched cancer kill my mother.  I think about how I spent every waking minute wondering when she was going to die.  I think about taking her to chemotherapy treatments and not wanting to leave her side.  See, I’m talking about something so severe that it consumes you.  Isn’t it unrealistic and unfair to expect a person to simply shut that off when he/she walks the tier or watches the yard?

Yes, it is.

I’m talking about that incident at work, that attempted suicide, that conversation that turned into an altercation, the noise, the smell, the yelling, the banging, and the silence.  I’m talking about when you are at home on your couch, the television is on,  you’re surrounded by family, the birds are chirping,  the sun is shining, and you are unable to enjoy any of it because you are still inside. You are still processing the trauma.  I’m talking about the incident that you are replaying in your mind over and over and over again wondering if you made the right decision.  Can we just suppress those thoughts and leave work at work because dinner is on the table?

The answer is no.

It is paramount for us to recognize and acknowledge that the environment that we work in can negatively affect us.  This can and does look differently for everyone.  Some of us suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), some of us drink, and some of us have become angry and cynical. Almost all of  us sit with our back against the wall when we eat in public.  Regardless of the level of severity, the fact of the matter is that this job will change you.

The other thing that we need to remember is that everyone processes and reacts to stress and trauma differently.  So, if a fellow officer approaches you and opens up to you about something that is bothering them you should be empathetic and helpful and listen without judgment. Understand that it takes a great deal of courage and confidence to admit and confess that we are not okay, especially in this profession.  If we dismiss or minimize the concerns of our co-workers by telling them to “leave work at work and home at home” we are propagating the problem.

Look, we can’t completely prevent the pollution from our professional life from piling up in our personal life and vice versa, but there are some things that we can do. There are some strategies that we can employ to minimize the impact.

Create a transition period between your personal life and professional life. 

Some officers change out of their uniforms before they leave their facility.  Some officers hang out and talk about their day with other officers.  I use the seventeen-minute drive home to decompress, to quiet  my mind, and to prepare to be a dad and a husband.  After work I jump into my vehicle, roll the windows down, and I just drive.  I don’t listen to the radio.  I don’t talk on my cellphone.  I just set my cruise-control and drive.

Participate in the positive.

At home, on your weekend, or whenever possible, you need to participate in an activity that brings you joy.  And I’m not talking about sitting in silence on your back porch with your favorite bottle of bourbon. As beautiful as that sounds, alcohol and isolation are the antithesis of the antidote for our affliction.  We need to get off of the couch and socialize.  We need to go fishing, hiking, biking, or volunteer at a local food pantry.  We need to coach little league.  We need to find something outside of work that has nothing to do with corrections so that we can reset our minds and rest our bodies.

You have to communicate.

As much as we don’t want to discuss our day with our friends and our families that is exactly what we need to do.  Trust me, I understand the desire to protect your family from the things that you see and say and have had to do, but I’m telling you, I’m urging you to communicate your concerns and your fears.  Share your stories and your successes, your dreams and your nightmares.  Talk about the things that haunt you, because the more you talk about them, the less power they will have over you.

Look, we might not be able to completely “leave work at work and home at home” but by having a healthy transitional period, by participating in positive activities, and by communicating and connecting with friends and family we can minimize the negative impact that our profession can have on our head, our heart, and our household.

About the Author 

William Young

Correctional Officer, Author, & Corrections Instructor

William has worked as a Correctional Officer since March of 2005.  He has worked throughout his facility in various areas ranging from Sanitation to Segregation and is currently assigned to Community Corrections.  William has been an instructor for his facility since 2009, teaching courses such as Emergency Preparedness (LETRA), Stress Management, Motivational Interviewing, and “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment” (CF2F).  He is a member of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) and is the Assistant Coordinator of the Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT).  William is a regular contributor to the “Correctional Oasis”, a monthly Ezine produced by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and is the author of “When Home Becomes a Housing Unit.” 

More of William’s work can be read in the “Correctional Oasis”, a monthly Ezine produced and published by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and in his book “When Home Becomes a Housing Unit”.

William would like to hear from you.  If you have any questions, comments, or feedback that you would like to share, please contact him at Justcorrections@gmail.com or visit his Facebook page.

William Young

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