Lia Crowley, BA, University of Connecticut; Janet Barnes-Farrell, PhD, University of Connecticut; Martin Cherniack, MD, MPH, UConn Health Center; Declan Gilmer, MS, University of Connecticut; Ethan Gossett, BS, University of Connecticut; Rajashree Kotejoshyer, MS, Univ. of Massachusetts-Lowell
This study explores how the stressful environment of working in a prison, particularly in regard to the need to manage emotions (emotional labor), results in burnout-exhaustion. In particular, we hypothesized that reported levels of emotional labor will be positively associated with levels of burnout-exhaustion (H1). Based on the argument that personal resources, such as a high sense of coherence, may buffer the impact of emotional labor on outcomes such as burnout-exhaustion, we further hypothesized that SOC would moderate the impact of emotional labor on burnout-exhaustion (H2), and thus provide a partial safeguard against burnout-exhaustion for those who experience emotional labor as a part of their working conditions.
Numerous studies of corrections facilities document the poor psychological and physical health outcomes for correctional officers (CO), serious psychological distress and occupational burnout . Although there has been considerable attention paid to the physical job demands and personal safety demands of working in prison environments, less studied are the emotional stressors that contribute to the well-known poor physical and mental health of COs. Prisons are emotionally charged environments for both prisoners and staff. Norms for how to comport oneself can be particularly straining and burdensome for some COs as they hold back or suppress their emotional reactions. The negative implications of the constant need to manage emotions in this environment is an understudied issue of theoretical and practical importance.
Data were drawn from a Department of Correction study conducted by the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPHNEW). This study, Health Improvement Through Employee Control (HITEC) assessed the wellbeing of corrections staff with the intention of creating interventions for better health for COs. Participants included correctional staff from thirteen Department of Correction facilities, with data collection ending in 2019. Employees who participated in wave three of a mentee follow-up survey (N=169) were included in this study. The final sample for which there were complete data on the relevant variables consisted of 158 participants, 72.3% of which were male.
Hierarchical multiple linear regression analysis was used to test the study hypotheses. After accounting for covariates, burnout-exhaustion was regressed on emotional labor to test H1. To test H2, we examined the additional variance in burnout-exhaustion accounted for by the interaction of emotional labor x SOC, after first including control variables, emotional labor, and SOC in the model. Specifically, we expected that the interaction would be in the form of a weaker relationship between emotional labor and burnout-exhaustion for COs with a higher SOC than for COs with a lower SOC.
As hypothesized, emotional labor was positively associated with burnout-exhaustion, supporting H1. SOC was also negatively associated with burnout-exhaustion, independent of its relationship with emotional labor. However, contrary to H2, SOC did not moderate the relationship between emotional labor and burnout-exhaustion.
Consistent with other findings in the literature regarding the relationship between work conditions that require emotional labor and stress-related responses, we demonstrated a connection between emotional labor and an important component of burnout, burnout-exhaustion. COs experience emotion and must react appropriately for the context of a corrections facility, guided by display rules. Following surface acting, they must put on a modified expression that is either faked or enhanced, and equivalently suppressing their true emotion. Niedenthal, Ric and Krauth-Gruber found that although emotional suppression changes the appearance of emotions, emotional arousal is not actually decreased . This means stress hormones are released, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and respiration increases, all maintaining a prolonged arousal state. This heightened physiological state is thought to lead to symptoms of burnout . Thus, the effects of stress are already occurring while the emotional labor (in this case- emotion suppression) is happening, likely resulting in burnout-exhaustion. COs must have an understanding of the way they might maladaptively engage with their emotions in the future so that they have the ability to [healthily] reappraise and mitigate prolonged stress from happening.
Although we did not find evidence that personal SOC buffered the emotional labor – burnout-exhaustion relationship as we had hypothesized, SOC did appear to have a protective effect on burnout-exhaustion, independent of emotional labor. Additional attention to this personological protective factor are thus worthy of additional study.
An abundance of research exists describing the poor health outcomes of COs, but little attention has been given to why these poor health outcomes exist, and how they might be ameliorated. A look into the lives of the healthier COs, presumably those with a higher sense of coherence, might give us insight into how to better hire and prepare officers for the job. Future studies might compare the “healthier” COs to their counterparts who experience higher levels of burnout. By understanding how sense of coherence safeguards COs, and people in general, against stress, we can tailor interventions and programs to strengthen sense of coherence and thus lessen burnout-exhaustion and negative stress related consequences.