Sources of stress among Federal Correctional Officers in Canada

Published date01 August 2023
AuthorMarcella Siqueira Cassiano,Rosemary Ricciardelli
Date01 August 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 8, August 2023, 1229 –1251.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2023 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Memorial University
Most correctional officers describe their jobs as stressful. The current study advances the scholarship on correctional stress
by offering a rare qualitative analysis that identifies, provides meaning, and contextualizes sources of stress in correctional
services. This study complements the correctional stress literature, which, until now, has relied primarily on quantitative
methodologies to identify and assess stress determinants. Forty-four correctional officers from Canada’s federal prisons were
interviewed about their primary source of stress. Findings indicate that staff (i.e., co-workers and managers), not prison
residents, represent a primary source of stress in correctional work. In addition, job seniority and gossip were the main stress
triggers associated with co-workers, while centralization of decision-making processes and a lack of instrumental communi-
cation and support triggered stress coming from managers.
Keywords: correctional office; correctional work; stress triggers; staff; co-worker; manager; prison resident
Most correctional officers (henceforth “COs”) describe their jobs as stressful. In addition
to enforcing rules and maintaining routines at correctional institutions, COs experience
continued exposure to suffering, harm, and violence. Their job also entails witnessing or
responding to critical incidents, such as psychological distress, self-harm, stabbings, and
suicide, while also managing the risk of being victimized by prison residents (henceforth
“residents”; Ellison & Jaegers, 2022). In addition, COs navigate staff-perpetrated harms
and an often “toxic” workplace culture (Burdett et al., 2018). The risks and stressors under-
pinning correctional work may result in the officer developing mental health injuries such
as generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (Regehr et al., 2021).
Concerned with the occupational realities of correctional work and how it affects workers’
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The research supporting this article received funding from the Canadian Institute of
Health Research (grant nos 449140, 211387, and 411385), Correctional Services Canada, and the Union of
Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO-SACC-CSN). Correspondence concerning this article should be
addressed to Rosemary Ricciardelli, Fisheries and Marine Institute, Memorial University of Newfoundland,
155 Ridge Road, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada A1C 5R3; e-mail:
*Marcella Siqueira Cassiano is now affiliated to University of Winnipeg
1174900CJBXXX10.1177/00938548231174900Criminal Justice and BehaviorSiqueira Cassiano, Ricciardelli / Sources of Stress
health and well-being, scholars have dedicated considerable effort to measuring stress lev-
els and identifying its determinants. This article discusses sources of stress in Canada’s
federal correctional system based on interviews with 44 COs. The data supporting this
article was collected under CCWORK (Ricciardelli et al., 2021), a multiyear mixed-method
longitudinal study of CO’s occupational well-being.
The literature on stress in correctional work is vast, primarily quantitative, and mostly
based on studies conducted in the United States. Job stress, often associated with job satis-
faction and organizational commitment, is the leading topic of correctional research (Butler
et al., 2019). Scholars use correlations and regression analyses to order stress determinants
according to their impact on well-being. A careful examination of the literature reveals three
somewhat intertwined types of stress determinants in correctional work (Lambert et al.,
2006): job stressors (i.e., intrinsic to the job); organizational stressors (i.e., resulting from
the organizational structure); and employee characteristics, which are usually addressed as
a potential correlate of job and organizational stressors.
Job stressors include how COs perceive their job (i.e., as safe or dangerous; Cullen et al.,
1985), their professional worthiness (Shamir & Drory, 1981), and work arrangement (e.g.,
workload, overtime, and understaffing; Finney et al., 2013). Despite covering many topics,
the job stressor literature within correctional services has emphasized two themes: work
arrangement, particularly workload, and role problems. These two themes deserve attention
as they are relevant for the current article.
Intuitively, more work would mean more stress and vice versa. However, studies on
work arrangement have presented inconsistent findings. Although several studies have
demonstrated that increased workload was a predictor of stress (Dignam & West, 1988;
Huckabee, 1992; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000; Schiff & Leip, 2019), others (Castle, 2008;
Moon & Maxwell, 2004b) have found that over time, which technically presupposes an
excessive workload, was not a stress determinant. Financial gain might mitigate any stress
caused by voluntary overtime. Researchers studying work arrangements have also explored
and confirmed boredom, a common feature of correctional work, as a source of stress
(Hughes & Zamble, 1993; Hughes, 1991).
The scholarship on role conflict and stress emerged in the 1980s with correctional phi-
losophies that required correctional services to reconcile custody with the care and rehabili-
tation of federally sentenced men and women. The need to reconcile potentially conflicting
demands has made numerous COs feel frustrated and burnt out due to role conflict (Arnold,
2005, 2016; Crawley & Crawley, 2008; Cullen et al., 1985; Liebling et al., 2011; Philliber,
1987). To explain the frustration and the stress stemming from changes in the correctional
role and mind-set, scholars have explored whether COs’ orientations (i.e., punitive vs reha-
bilitative) toward correctional work influenced stress levels. Scholars have demonstrated
that COs with a punitive orientation experienced higher stress levels (Cheeseman et al.,
2011; Cullen et al., 1985; Dignam et al., 1986; Ferdik & Hills, 2018; Misis et al., 2013; Toch
& Klofas, 1982; Whitehead, 1989). As prison reforms advanced, COs’ orientations became
multidimensional and nuanced, and dualist orientation analyses became outdated. However,

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