Causes of correctional officer stress

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This chapter will provide an overview of the theoretical framework that were utilised in the understanding of the phenomenon of occupational stress and the coping mechanisms utilised by the the South African Correctional Officer. The ecosystems perspective and the Conservation of Resources will be discussed in relation to available sources on the topic.

The ecosystems perspective

The ecosystems perspective is very useful theoretical framework for the understanding of the manifestation of occupational stress in the correctional officer. A central concept of the ecosystems approach is that of the person-in -environment, implying that the person cannot be viewed separate from the environment he or she is embedded in (Mattaini & Meyer, 2016). According to Mattaini and Meyer (2016) the ecosystems approach highlights the transactions between the individual and his or her environment.
The ecosystems approach allows for the graphical depicting of the interconnected relationship between the person in his or her environment by utilising an ecomap (Mattaini & Meyer, 2016). Mattaini and Meyer (2016) highlighted that an ecomap represents the field of elements in which the person is embedded in which makes it virtually impossible to separate the individual and his or her environment in the perception phenomena. Furthermore, an ecomap makes the connectedness and transactions in a system visible as well as to eliminate the hyphen between the individual and his or her environment (Mattaini & Meyer, 2016).
Systems create their own boundaries as part of their self-regulating process (Mattaini & Meyer, 2016). These boundaries can be reflected in physical space, for example the correctional facility. However, these boundaries can also be drawn conceptually by locating the salient transactional patterns or relationships in a systems and operationally defining the boundary by drawing a circle around it. According to Mattaini and Meyer (2016) there is some power in establishing the boundary of a system, because the picture which is finally drawn will shape the understanding of the case. Mattaini and Meyer (2016) highlighted the advantages in using an ecomap namely: (a) it can help draw order out of apparent chaos; (b) illustrate the ways in which systems functions; (c) serve as a communication tool between practitioners and clients and among professionals; (d) it can show assets and liabilities present in case configuration, and the patterns of positive and negative transactions within which each client is embedded.
Thus, from an ecosystems perspective the following boundaries could be relevant to the correctional officer and his or her environment:
The Correctional Centre (negative transaction)
Co-workers (positive transaction)
Supervisors/Management (negative transaction)
Inmates (negative transaction)
The Employee Assistance and Wellness Programme (positive transaction)
Family (positive or negative transaction)
Mattaini and Meyer (2016) highlighted the importance of recognizing the challenges as well as the resources or strengths in the person’s transactions with his or her environment. Thus, from an ecosystems perspective there are several factors that could pose challenges to the correctional officer which might lead to occupational stress. Please refer to Figure 3.2 where
(a) the correctional facility; (b) conflict at home; (c) inmates; and (d) supervisors/management is depicted as negative transactions in an ecomap of the correctional officer.
Firstly, environmental factors might be a challenge that leads to stress. Environmental factors refer to the condition of the correct facility and ways that the conditions itself may lead to stress for correctional officers (Payne, Oliver, & Marion, 2015). According to Payne et al. (2015) officers work inside, with little exposure to sunlight, and greatly restricted in their own abilities to move around. Furthermore, correctional officer’s work in a place designed to keep its inhabitants isolated from society but while they are working there, they too are isolated from society and may experience « pains » similar to those that are experienced by inmates (Payne et al., 2015).
Secondly, situational factors might also pose challenges to correctional officers. Situational factors refer to various parts of the correctional officer’s daily routine that may contribute to stress (Payne et al., 2015). According to Payne et al. (2015) correctional officers face constant threats of violence and danger. Correctional officers are also expected to perform long hours for a relatively low salary. In addition, because they are working out of the public eye, community support is minimal. Furthermore, in the same way that boredom is part of the inmate’s daily routine it is also a frequent part of the correctional officer’s routine. Payne et al. (2015) highlighted that the lack of mental activities that are available to correctional officers to challenge them to use their skills can also produce stress.
Thirdly, biological factors might also pose challenges to correctional officers. Biologica l factors refer to the physical and biological demands placed on correctional officers that can make the job stressful (Payne et al., 2015). According to Payne et al. (2015) correctional officer’s work hours are highly regimented. Therefore, they cannot stop working and eat when they are hungry like many other occupations. In addition, shift work and the sedentary work style (always sitting or inactive) of some officers can result in stress (Payne et al., 2015).
Fourthly, conflict at home because of their work might also pose challenges to the correctional officer. According to Payne et al. (2015) work/home factors refer to conflicts that correctional officers can experience between their work roles and their roles as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, or other family roles. Correctional officers are expected to be in control and exert authority when they are at work. Therefore, it may be difficult to turn off their « correctional officer » behavior when they get home. Furthermore, a lack of family support for correctional officers can be problematic in the workplace and the home. Research found that work/home conflict reduces job satisfaction for correctional officers which might lead to stress (Payne et al., 2015).
Fifthly, the view correctional officer’s holds towards inmates might lead to stress. Bezerre et al. (2016) found that correctional officers who view their work as more orientated towards the treatment of inmates have more elevated stress levels. In addition, research also found that correctional officers who have the most negative perception of the personal characteristics of the inmate (as hostile, anti-social, cold) present more elevated stress levels (Bezerre et al., 2016).
Lastly, a lack of support from supervisors or management might lead to stress. Dollard (2001) pointed out that the National UK Health Services recognized that management style clearly affected the health of workers. According to Dollard (2001) research found that good management style has a huge impact in reducing the levels of stress in workers. Furthermore, conflict between management, supervisors and workers can lead to strain which may restrict referral by the supervisor for secondary/tertiary intervention (Dollard, 2001).
Based on the ecosystemic approach, resources should also be recognised in the person’s transaction with his or her environment (Mattaini & Meyer, 2016). Thus, from an ecosystems perspective there are various social support structures that act as a resource for the correctional officer. Co-workers, family, friends as well as the Employee Assistance and Wellness Programme are social support structures. Therefore, abovementioned social support structures are depicted as positive transactions in the ecomap of the correctional officer (Please see Figure 3.2).
Ashberg, Bowers, Renk and McKinney (2008) defined social support as (a) the actual structure of an individual’s support networks (b) the degree to which individuals perceive relationships to provide adequate emotional and instrumental support (c) interpersonal transactions that involves the actual receipt of support, including emotional concern, instrumental aid, information and/or appraisal assistance. According to Ashberg et al. (2008) two views explain the positive effects of social support. The first view is that social support has a direct effect on adjustment by aiding in the development of adaptive coping skills. In stressful situations, therefore, a support network can help reinforce the ability to cope with adversity. The second view is that social support functions as a buffer against the potentially negative effects of stress, especially when stress levels are high.
Firstly, co-workers can be a source of social support for the correctional officer and can aid in coping with the stressful work environment (Bezerra et al., 2016; Chipanga, 2016; Mostert, 2001; Owen, 2006; Reeves, 2014). Chipanga’s (2016) research found that correctional officers indicated peer support groups aided in coping. In addition, the social support received from inside the correctional facility (from colleagues and supervisors) mitigate the effects of work tension on health. According to Chipanga (2016) officers who perceived support from their supervisors or employers relate less stress and a high satisfaction level. Bezerra et al. (2016) found that the support from colleagues is also valued as an effective health protective factor. Furthermore, Reeves (2014) found that high levels of co -worker instrumental support had a positive effect on correctional officer’s psychological health.
Secondly, family support can be a source of social support for the correctional officer. Mostert (2001) found that married correctional officer’s utilised approach coping strategies more than unmarried correctional officers. According to Mostert (2001) spousal support may serve as a buffer against occupational stress, since the married officers are able to share the burden with their spouse. They might feel threatened by having to seek other forms of social support where they are less protected, such as managerial support or seeking help from professionals (Mostert, 2001).
Lastly, the Employee Wellness Programme can be a resource for the correctional officer. Owen (2006) highlighted the importance of providing opportunities for social support at work. According to Owen (2006) the development of a workplace counselling programme is an effective way of providing social support at work. Bensimon (2010) found that by reducing the negative impact of stress through employee wellness programmes, it may increase both job satisfaction and organisational commitment for employees. Job satisfaction is defined as an emotional state that allows an individual to achieve objectives related to the nature of the job (Lambert & Poaline, 2008). Lambert and Poaline (2008) found that higher levels of job satisfaction are associated with greater support for rehabilitation and compliance with organisational rules. Employees who are experiencing less stress, and are more satisfied with their jobs are likely to have higher levels of organisational commitment.
Lambert and Poaline (2008) defined organisational commitment as the bond that the individual has with their workplace. According to Lambert and Hogan (2010) organisational commitment is generally associated with loyalty to the organisation, identification with the organisation (pride in the organisation and internalising of the goals of the organisation) and involvement in the organisation. In addition, higher levels of organisational commitment are related to positive outcomes, including prosocial organisational behaviour, improved job performance, receptivity to change and organisational citizenship behaviour. Furthermore, staff members with a strong bond with the organisation are less likely to leave, thus organisations that have higher overall levels of organisational commitment benefits from lower levels of turnover and the cost associated with recruiting and training of new staff members.
According to McCraty et al. (2009) an evaluation of the impact of a stress management programmes for correctional officers found significant improvements in the following (a) cholesterol, (b) heart rate, (c) blood pressure, (d) positive outlook, (e) a significant reduction in overall psychological distress, (f) significant increases in productivity, (g) motivation, (h) goal clarity, and (i) perceived support.

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The Conservation of Resources Theory

According to Dewe et al. (2012) the fundamental tenant of the COR theory is that individuals strive to obtain, retain, protect and foster those things that they value. Therefore, people endeavor to both preserve resources and to accumulate resources in order to navigate their way through life’s demands and challenges. Dewe et al. (2012) defined a resource is anything that is important to the individual, contributes positively to their well-being and enabling them to adjust.
A key feature of the COR theory is that it considers both environmental elements and the individual’s cognitions as equally important (Dewe et al., 2012). According to Dewe et al. (2012) these dimensions are given relatively equal weight in determining whether or not the person will experience conservation of resources. The basic idea underlying COR theory is that stressful circumstances lead to resource losses; for example conflict with other people at work can drain the individual’s energy, take time to deal with it, and distract them from their basic job tasks, all of which will result in resource losses. Because resource losses represent a major threat to survival, they have primacy over resources gains when the person is contesting with stressful circumstances. Furthermore, it is also argued that individuals tend to focus more on resource losses than gains, because losses can determine the individual’s ability to survive and thrive in the world (Dewe et al., 2012).
Thus, from a Conservation of Resources perspective the coping strategies utilised by Correctional Officers to deal with the challenging work environment can be considered a resource to minimize losses. Carr (2004) defined coping strategies as consciously selected routines employed to manage situations in which there is a perceived discrepancy between stressful demands and available resources for meeting those demands. Lazarus and Folkman (1984, p. 141) defined coping as « constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person. » Lazarus and Folkman (1984) considered two main forms of coping: (a) emotion-focused coping, where coping is directed towards regulating the emotional response to the problem and (b) problem solving coping, where coping is directed towards managing or altering the problem which is causing the distress. Evidence suggests that people utilise problem-focused coping when the situation is controllable and emotion-focused coping when the situation is not controllable (Endler, Speer, Johnson, & Flett, 2000; Sojo & Guarino, 2011).
Chipanga’s (2016) research found that correctional officers utilised various coping strategies to deal with the challenges encountered in the correctional facility environment. According to De Beer and Korf (2004) individuals engage in various activities to reduce stress. Therefore, coping should ideally involve flexibility and access to various coping strategies suited to the specific situation. Heim (1991) highlighted that coping is mostly related to a specific situation and is goal directed, striving to maintain an emotional and/or psychological balance, which maintains health.
Firstly, some correctional officers utilised self motivation as a coping strategy (Chipanga, 2016). According to Chipanga (2016) self motivation could be viewed as an individual’s ability to motivate themselves through their circumstances. This allows individuals to become more adaptable to their situation, based on the self-talks that they have with themselves (Chipanga, 2016). In the current researcher’s opinion this also suggests that participants demonstrated some resiliency. Muchinsky (2000) found that the individual’s ability to effectively cope with occupational stressors can be positively influenced by resilience and other interpersonal resources. Peterson (2006) highlighted that resilience plays an important role in the individual’s ability to survive and thrive in the world. According to Peterson (2006, p. 239) resilience is « a quality that enables people to thrive in the face of adversity. » Sojo and Gaurino (2011) found that the coping style adopted by individuals in stressful situations is dependent on individual factors such as resilience, which may result in the maintenance or deterioration of health.
Secondly, other participants in Chipanga’s (2016) research utilised acceptance of the negative work situation as a coping strategy. According to Chipanga (2016) acceptance of a situation can be viewed as an acknowledgement of the present situation and a willingness to leave the situation unchanged. This coping mechanism does not only yield the desired results but allows the individual to move forward in an organisation in a more passive manner (Chipanga, 2016). Similarly, Carver, Scheir, and Weintraub (1989) suggested that acceptance of a situation can be viewed as a functional coping response in that a person accepts the reality of a stressful situation regardless of the consequences. Correctional and military settings generally dictate how employees should behave and therefore acceptance of the situation is more desirable. According to Buunk (1998) acceptance of the situation is an effective coping mechanism used by individuals who strive to fit and adjust into their work setting. However, Chipanga (2016) argued that acceptance of the situation is not an effective way to deal with problems encountered. According to Chipanga (2016) although it allowed employees to adapt to the current situation as well as to fit into their environment it may affect their well-being in the long run.
Thirdly, correctional officers in Chipanga’s (2016) research utilised suppression as a coping strategy. According to Chipanga (2016) suppression is often used when employees feel that expressing how they feel will not change the situation and when they want to avoid confrontation of a situation. The individual then tends to place their feelings in the background and continue working regardless of how they feel about the situation. Carver, Scheier, and Weintraub (1989) found that suppression is a useful psychological mechanism, through which an individual blocks the unwanted information out of their awareness. According to Carver et al. (1989) this is a consciously chosen action not to indulge in conscious thoughts or feelings even though they are aware of it. This to a great extent permits the individual to focus on their affairs without being distracted by every impulse that arises and without having to act on the impulse (Carver et al., 1989).
The Conservation of Resources theory states that environmental resources will vary depending on the kind of environment the person function in (Dewe et al., 2012). Thus, from a COR perspective having autonomy in one’s job, the amount and type of feedback received from one’s job performance, and the levels of rewards obtained for successful job performance, are all examples of environmental resources in the correctional facility environment. Tapscott (2009), Chipanga, (2016), and Bezerre et al. (2016) found that lack of input into decision-making, lack of supervisor/management support, inadequate reward or merit system that recognised good job performance are a source of dissatisfaction for most correctional officers. However, Chipanga (2016) found that correctional officers relied on support from co-workers to deal with the challenges encountered at work such as lack of input into decision-making, lack of supervisor support, and inadequate reward system. According to Dewe et al. (2012) social support from work colleagues and organisational support for individuals (accommodating their needs) represents environment resources which can reduce stress and burnout as well as enhance positive well-being.


This chapter provided an overview of the ecosystems perspective and the conservation of resources theory that were utilised as theoretical framework in the study. The core assumptions of the two theories were presented in relation to relevant literature on occupational stress and coping in the correctional officer. The next chapter will focus on the methodology utilised in the study.

1.1 Introductory background to the study
1.2 Statement of the problem
1.3 Research aim
1.4 Rationale for the study
1.5 Summary
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Transformation of Prisons to Correctional Facilities
2.3 Corrections as a profession
2.4 Concept of stress
2.5 Causes of correctional officer stress
2.6 The effects of correctional officer stress
2.7 The Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)
2.8 Legislative framework underpinning EAP’s and workplace wellness in South Africa
2.9 The EAP in the South African Department of Correctional Services
2.10 Models of Employee Assistance Programmes
2.11 Issues influencing the functioning and utilisation of EAP’s
2.12 Summary
3.1 Introduction
3.2 The ecosystems perspective
3.3 The Conservation of Resources Theory
3.4 Summary
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Research design
4.3 Sampling Procedure
4.4 Data collection process
4.5 Trustworthiness of the IPA study
4.7 Procedure for data analysis
4.8 Ethical considerations
4.9 Summary
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Profile of the participants
5.3 Themes
5.4 Summary
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Aim of the Research
6.3 Summary of the Research Findings
6.4 Recommendations
6.5 Limitations
6.6 Summary

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