Pervasive Uncertainty under Threat: Mental Health Disorders and Experiences of Uncertainty for Correctional Workers

Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 7, July 2022, 991 –1009.
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© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Mental Health Disorders and Experiences of
Uncertainty for Correctional Workers
Memorial University of Newfoundland
University of Central Florida
University of Manitoba
University of Regina
University of Manitoba
University of Regina
Exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events for correctional workers is high. However, the mechanisms driv-
ing the high prevalence are relatively unexplained. Using data from a cross-sectional, online survey of correctional service
workers (n = 845) in Ontario, Canada, collected in 2017–2018, we assess the prevalence of mental disorders with a spe-
cific focus on uncertainty in the workplace and between correctional roles. We find that correctional officers, institutional
governance, and probation/parole officers appear most at risk of mental disorders (prevalence of any mental disorder was
56.9%, 60.3%, and 59.2%, respectively). We argue slightly lower prevalence among institutional wellness, training, and
administrative staff may result in part from their more predictable work environment, where they have more control. The
results reaffirm a need for evidence-based proactive mental health activities, knowledge translation, and treatment and a
need to explore how authority without control (i.e., unpredictability at work) can inform employee mental health.
Keywords: correctional workers; intolerance of uncertainty/vulnerabilities; mental health; well-being; control
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Special thanks for recruitment support and the review provided by the Ontario Ministry
of the Solicitor General and the Ontario Pubic Service Employees Union. The author(s) disclosed receipt of the
following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: R. Nicholas
Carleton’s research is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) through a New
Investigator Award (FRN: 13666). Tracie O. Afifi’s research is supported by a Tier I Canada Research Chair.
This research was also funded in part by a CIHR Catalyst Grant (FRN: 16234). Correspondence concerning
this article should be addressed to Rosemary Ricciardelli, Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Department
of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 230 Elizabeth
Avenue, AA 4066, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada A1E 4L6; e-mail:
1050112CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211050112Criminal Justice and BehaviorRicciardelli et al. / Mental Health, Uncertainty, and Correctional Workers
Carleton and colleagues (2018) reported the prevalence of mental disorders for Canadian
correctional workers to be as high as 55%, which is much greater than the approximately
10% prevalence found among the general Canadian population (Statistics Canada, 2012).
Perhaps unsurprising, given correctional work is associated with occupational stressors
(Boudoukha et al., 2013; Boyd, 2011; Lambert et al., 2009; Lambert & Paoline, 2010) and
situations laced with unpredictability and therein uncertainty which has been linked to men-
tal disorders (Carleton, 2016). All correctional workers have diverse degrees of authority
and control in their workspace, and their control is often directly informed by the compli-
ance of those in custody and the unpredictable nature of humanity (Rhodes, 2004; Sykes,
1958). Unpredictability can drive uncertainty. Experiencing uncertainty can lead to a weak-
ened perception of safety, which in turn is associated with increased mental disorder symp-
toms (Fullerton et al., 2006; Grupe & Nitschke, 2013).
Uncertainty regarding one’s safety may be particularly detrimental for correctional
employees who are on high alert to operational stressors (Ricciardelli & Power, 2020).
Correctional worker roles vary substantially, but correctional workers remain embedded in
an unpredictable and uncertain workspace replete with direct (e.g., in-person) and indirect
(e.g., reading case files) Potentially Psychologically Traumatic Event (PPTE) exposures
(Carleton, Afifi, et al., 2019; Carleton et al., 2018). Exposures to PPTE vary in severity and
type (e.g., violence, physical assaults, death by suicide, and harassment) (Carleton, Afifi,
et al., 2019; Isenhardt & Hostettler, 2016; Ricciardelli, 2019) and have been linked to
increased risk of mental disorders including major depressive disorder (MDD), posttrau-
matic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder (PD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD),
social anxiety disorder (SAD), and alcohol use disorder (AUD) for correctional workers
(Carleton et al., 2018; Ricciardelli, Carleton, Groll, & Cramm, 2018; Ricciardelli, Carleton,
Mooney, & Cramm, 2018).
Correctional workers can reasonably expect PPTE exposures in diverse locations, like
populations of people who are incarcerated and work environments. For instance, in Canadian
federal prisons, in 2014, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) surveyed 122 correctional
officers and found they experience PPTE in the form of excessive violence with 15% of
respondents reported being physically assaulted more than 3 times; 17% reported responding
to suicide attempts more than 3 times; 20% reported responding to a riot more than 3 times;
17% reported witnessing murder more than 3 times; and 50% reported witnessing a physical
assault more than 3 times. Often these situations are laced with low control and uncertainty.
Community correctional workers, such as probation officers, may be exposed to both direct
(e.g., witnessing) and indirect (e.g., reading about) PPTE, with varying levels of control.
Rhineberger-Dunn et al. (2016) found that secondary trauma was more likely to be reported
by probation/parole officers in comparison with residential officers in the United States (see
also: Rhineberger-Dunn & Mack, 2019). The coupling of persistent uncertainty with threat
potential increases the risk of mental health disorders (Carleton, 2016).
In this study, we recognize the negative effects of workplace violence (Baines et al.,
2011), bullying and harassment (Mayhew & Chappell, 2007), work-related stress
(Bourbonnais et al., 2007; Mayhew & Chappell, 2007), and nonstandard (e.g., shift work)
and precarious employment—all informing uncertainty—on the physical and mental health
of correctional workers. With this in mind, we investigate the relationship between uncer-
tainty and mental disorder symptoms for correctional employees working in different

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