In this article I’d like to share with you some thoughts on ways to possibly reduce the occurrence of avoidable high-stress events at work, and the wear-and-tear (whether visible or invisible; physical, psychological or spiritual) that you suffer due to these events. One type of these high-stress events is the escalation of conflict due to clashes with other staff or the justice-involved persons you manage.

In the October 2022 issue of the Correctional Oasis we addressed staff bullying as a major source of staff stress. In this issue I’d like to talk about an approach to potentially avoid or de-escalate conflict and reduce tension in your interactions with those in the criminal justice system who are under your care.

My goal is to humbly offer you some tools towards your wellbeing – “your safety and your sanity,” and towards the fostering of healthier, lower-stress work environments than what you may be experiencing now.

I say humbly, because you are the ones doing the heavy lifting. You are the ones who day in and day out deal directly with the challenges of corrections/detention/probation/parole work. We at Desert Waters are outsiders who come alongside you to offer you coping tools, encouragement, and support.

The level of health of your workplace environment, AKA your workplace culture, is of critical importance, because you are immersed in it every minute of your working day. If you were a fish, it’d be the pond you swim in for many hours daily. You breathe in it, you consume what is in it, every pore of your being is saturated by its water. You cannot escape it.

Similarly, whatever atmosphere you or anyone else create at work – whether tension, hostility, and negativity, or safety, order, and positive regard – everyone present is subjected to it. If a nutrient is released in your pond, everyone benefits from it; but if toxins are released there, everyone gets affected by that action just the same. No matter how well-equipped and tough you may be, it is impossible to remain a healthy fish in an unhealthy, polluted pond. That is why it is in your best interest to do whatever is within your control to ensure that your pond remains as healthy as possible.

In this article I’ll first present to you some research findings1 that underscore the critical role that workplace culture plays in corrections staff’s wellbeing. After that I’ll describe to you some basic steps you can take (if you are not already applying them) to help your workplace culture become healthier, more positive than it already is, and reduce the probability of conflict erupting with the persons you manage.

What one study tells us about the impact of workplace culture on corrections staff’s health

research study of corrections staff’s health showed that the most significant variable studied in regard to staff wellbeing was staff’s Work Health (moraleenergy level – physical and emotionaland job satisfaction).

More specifically, Work Health affected staff’s Family Health and Mental Health unusually strongly, and affected their Physical Health strongly. (By the way, Work Health – moraleenergy level – physical and emotionaland job satisfaction, taps into our concept of Corrections Fatigue, the negative changes in staff’s personality, health and functioning due to unresolved negative effects of work stressors.)

The effects of Work Health were found to have a much greater impact on aspects of staff’s health than the effects of exposure to traumatic events at work or working in a custody/security role.

Equally important was the finding that staff’s Social Health (quality of relationships with direct supervisors, coworkers, and justice-involved persons) strongly impacted staff’s Work Health. In other words, as Social Health improved, staff’s Work Health improved; and in turn, staff’s Family Health, Mental Health, and Physical Health improved. Conversely, as Social Health deteriorated, so did staff’s Work Health, and that was followed by deterioration in staff’s Family Health, Mental Health, and Physical Health, with possibly catastrophic consequences as severe as suicide.

The combination of Social Health and Work Health largely comprise what we mean by “workplace culture.” These study findings mean that the workplace culture has a greater impact on staffs family health, mental health, and physical health than exposure to danger or trauma or working as a custody/security employee.

That is a highly significant finding which leads us to conclude that when considering improvements to correctional employees’ wellness, our most promising target (“most likely to succeed”)is the quality of the workplace cultureby taking into account the following:

  • The best way to impact staff’s Family Health, Mental Health, and Physical Health is through the improvement of Work Health.
  • The best way to impact Work Health is through the improvement of Social Health.
  • The best way to improve Social Health is through the improvement of the quality of staff’s professional relationships with direct supervisors, coworkers and justice-involved persons.

When it comes to health and wellness in correctional workplaces, quality of relationships is king! It is as simple (and as complex) as that.

Corrections staff wellbeing and the use of the Big 7

But how can we go about improving the quality of staffs professional relationships in workplace environments that are characterized by high-stress conditions and events?

In a nutshell, my best answer at this point in time is THE BIG 7.

Staff who have taken our course “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™,” (CF2F) or any of our other courses, know that the Big 7 refer to seven dimensions which have to do with seven basic psychological needs. These dimensions are Physical Safety, Psychological Safety, Trust, Power, Respect, Connection, and Meaning.

The Big 7 are catalysts of professional fulfillment in corrections work, and the foundation of positive workforce cultures, as they foster constructive relating.

In our CF2F course we introduced the Big 7 dimensions regarding staff-with-staff interactions.

What we want to do here is present ways to apply the Big 7 dimensions in interactions with justice-involved persons, and in doing so (a) help improve the interpersonal climate – the Social Health – of the entire workplace – the pond you swim in; and (b) as a result, help reduce the likelihood of occurrence of high-stress and even critical events, and the damage they cause to staff’s body, soul and spirit.

In other words, we expect that application of the Big 7 at work will help improve the quality of interactions between staff and justice-involved persons, and, as a result, overall safety and security at the institution will increase, in addition to reductions to staff’s levels of Corrections Fatigue.

The following are my suggestions as to how to apply the Big 7 in staff’s interactions with justice-involved persons. You will probably have additional ones that work for you. We strongly recommend that these proposed actions be applied consistently. Consistency is the key to changing workplace cultures, as people’s expectations change when they see behaviors implemented routinely, being “the way we do things around here.”

Use of the Big 7 is particularly vital under times of high-stress when “buttons get pushed,” people are “triggered,” emotions become volatile, tempers flare, and both staff and justice-involved persons can become knee-jerk reactive, provoking, or combative, without considering possible negative consequences. That is why we urge staff to consciously and intentionally keep the Big 7 in mind, doing their best to apply them, especially when under pressure. The saying comes to mind, “It is especially important when it is hard.”

So here are some ways you and your coworkers can put the Big 7 to good use with the justice-involved persons you manage.

  1. Physical Safety: Follow policy, and remain vigilant. This communicates to justice-involved persons you are responsible for that their physical safety is of paramount importance, and that you are doing whatever is within your professional authority to ensure that they remain physically safe.
  2. Psychological Safety: Operate in ways that demonstrate that you do not engage in or tolerate behaviors that degrade, humiliate, dehumanize, belittle, ridicule, mock, or abuse people. Ensure your conduct is that of a “straight arrow.” If you are going to write incarcerated persons up for an infraction, tell them you are going to do so, what you will include in your report, and why.
  3. Trust: Follow policy to the best of your understanding. Consult with your supervisor regarding handling more complex, “gray zone” situations, where it is not a simple black or white, either-or decision. Act in ways that convey that you are dependable by delivering as you promise; or if not able to do so, let justice-involved persons know why you will not be able to do so, and what you can do instead at this point. Ways to earn their trust to some degree includes “owning” your behavior or even apologizing when you realize that you have erred or forgotten something.
  4. Power: Empowering justice-involved persons may not sound like something you want to do, but the way the concept is used here is aimed at improving the overall climate, and consequently increasing the safety of all involved. This type of empowerment includes encouraging incarcerated persons to engage in programs aimed at self-improvement (such as by pursuing their high school education or vocational training); to engage in self-care and personal growth (such as by taking a class on parenting skills, seeking mental health services, complying with their medications regimen, engaging in restorative justice, or partaking in spiritual activities); or to engage in helping others (such as by engaging in dog training – if there is such a program at their facility, restorative justice activities, or activities aimed to help their communities). Empowering justice-involved persons also involves encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions – recent or old.
  5. Respect: This is the one element, the one of the Big 7 that I believe you must make every effort to always keep at the forefront in your interactions with those in your care, even when you are irritable, angry, hungry, anxious, or tired. Make every effort to treat others as respectfully as you want to be treated. Respect – or lack thereof – is reflected in your facial expression (eye rolling, looks of disgust, snorting, or huffing and puffing), your tone of voice, how you address people, hand gestures, and the content of your verbal communication – your choice of words. Avoid making (and never endorse) comments that are sarcastic put-downs, demeaning, or veiled or not-so-veiled threats. (See Psychological Safety above.)
  6. Connection: Yes, you can “connect” with justice-involved persons at a professional level without violating policy and without violating your professional and moral principles. This can be done by taking the time to actively listen to them when they speak to you, showing that you are interested in what they have to say by asking open-ended questions when they talk to you, or making an empathic comment about difficulties they may be experiencing.
  7. Meaning: Encourage justice-involved persons in your care to use their time in the criminal justice system to their benefit to improve themselves (see the section on Power above), and to help others by taking advantage of opportunities offered to them at the jail, prison, or the community. Encourage them also by pointing out and affirming efforts or progress you observe that they made. Talk about the importance of having truly helpful people in their lives who also hold them accountable, a safe place (or preparing for one), and a positive purpose, a good reason to go on, such as to go back home to take care of their families.

In conclusion

It is a very rare occasion indeed that we utilize this space to discuss direct interaction with justice-involved persons. And yet, it is a topic that must be addressed if we truly expect corrections staff to thrive through the improvement of Social Health and subsequently Work Health. The data on the subject are robust and very convincing. It would be highly unwise to ignore them, as corrections staff’s health is on the line.

It is worth repeating: When it comes to health in correctional workplaces, quality of relationships is king!

The suggestions above are some very simple yet powerful ways to change the workplace climate, helping reduce stress for all stakeholders, and possibly conflict or violence – without violating policy, and, by doing so, reduce the probability that you or your coworkers will be stressed, injured or traumatized.

As you model prosocial behaviors, this approach may also spark the beginning of positive changes in the persons you manage, which is always welcome, and which will increase your sense of meaning about the work that you do in the criminal justice career field.

Yes, applying the Big 7 at times requires effort and self-control, but we know that doing so pays back dividends. If you are already practicing satisfying the Big 7 with your coworkers, the next step is beginning to apply them as suggested here with the persons you manage. And, if these are unfamiliar practices to you, what may be required is taking a leap of faith, trusting that indeed the Big 7 work if you work them, followed by baby steps in their application with both coworkers and the justice-involved persons in your care.

Remember, we are discussing this topic because we want you to remain safe and well, and your working environment to be as healthy, safe and low-stress as possible, by avoiding avoidable negative interactions.

We look forward to hearing back from you. Email us at admin@desertwaters.com.

1Spinaris, C. G., & Brocato, N. Descriptive study of Michigan Department of Corrections Staff Well-being: Contributing factors, outcomes, and actionable solutions. (2019). https://www.michigan.gov/documents/corrections/MDOC_Staff_Well-being_Report_660565_7.pdf