Protective Gear for Correctional Nurses

The post last week talked about the problem of nurses being exposed to inappropriate and hostile sexual behaviors by inmates and the kinds of interventions that should be in place to minimize or control antisocial inmate behavior. Nurses were advised not to confront this behavior single handedly but to look to the facility for guidance. But that is just half the solution, the other half, which is the subject of today’s post, is that individuals can take steps on their own to minimize the adverse effects of these unfortunate situations on themselves.

The reality is that bad things do happen in corrections. Even in the best run correctional facilities inmates are injured and sometimes staff are injured as a result of violence and on some of these occasions died as a result of the violence. The nature of the correctional environment is that it always has the potential for immediate violence and direct trauma. Another pervasive aspect of our working environment is that because of the involuntary conditions of incarceration, there is inherent conflict, particularly between staff and inmates. These two features of the work environment combined with operational stressors, such as high workload, contribute to what has been called “Corrections Fatigue”.

It has been suggested that correctional staff prepare themselves to be in this environment the same way that they don other protective gear. An analogy for correctional nurses would be gowning, gloving and putting on a properly fitted mask before going into the isolation room of a patient with active tuberculosis. By wearing protective gear staff minimize their exposure. The same concept applies to the trauma associated with repeated exposure to violence or threatening behavior. What kind of “gear” minimizes our repeated exposure to trauma in the corrections environment?

Resilience is a characteristic that refers to an individual’s ability to cope with adversity; it is the ability to “bounce back” after a stressful experience. Resilience varies from one person to another but we can each tend to and build our resilience. Resilience, then is our protective gear. The following four behaviors have been identified as building resilience in correctional workers.

Build Supportive Relationships at Work – Building and maintaining social support among co-workers has been found to correlate with resilience for the person offering support. By building genuine bonds with co-workers we increase our sense of safety, reduce interpersonal tension and staff conflict. Examples of behaviors that are supportive of relationships at work include:

  • being friendly and respectful,
  • asking how a co-worker is and paying attention to their answer,
  • acknowledging a job well done,
  • looking for ways to assist others when you have time,
  • thanking others for their assistance, and
  • being compassionate with others’ experiences.

Take Care of Yourself – How many times have we as health care providers offered this advice to others? And yet we are known to neglect ourselves, making us vulnerable to burnout, compassion fatigue and now, corrections fatigue. Being healthy is a basic tenet of resilience. Healthy habits and lifestyle behaviors include those that attend not just to your physical needs, but psychological, spiritual and social needs as well. Healthy habits and lifestyle behaviors include:

  • maintaining balance between work and home life
  • mindfully transition to and from work
  • prioritize free time to be with people who are significant in your family and social life
  • engaging in pleasant activity-having fun
  • regulate negative emotions (emotional intelligence)
  • establish a regular and healthy sleep schedule.

Be Confident and Perseverant – These behaviors build competence handling complex or challenging circumstances at work. Confidence and perseverance are a result of:

  • a resolution to complete tasks even when it is difficult,
  • using self-talk to motivate oneself to persevere in the face of adversity,
  • rehearsing and repeating training so that it becomes more automatic and built in,
  • being flexible, open and adaptive to change
  • being ethical and acting with integrity.

Use Logic to Solve Problems – This approach is recommended as a way to keep your cool in the face of the complex or challenging problems we deal with in correctional health care. Thinking logically about situations means considering more than one possible cause and weighing possible responses before choosing the one that is most likely to have the effect you are seeking. This way you maintain control and composure in frustrating or disappointing circumstances. Practical ways to practice logical problem solving and self-control include:

  • divide complex problems into parts and tackle one component at a time,
  • learn how to detach emotionally from challenging situations,
  • view mistakes as learning opportunities,
  • regulate fear and other negative emotions while acting constructively,
  • accept that you cannot always be in control.

These four behaviors, supporting workplace relationships, taking care of yourself, being confident and perseverant, and logical problem solving are your protective gear (resilience) to reduce the effects of violence and other antisocial behaviors, conflict and other operational stressors that are inherent in the correctional setting on your health and well-being.

For more information about promoting wellness among staff who work in correctional settings please see the National Institute of Corrections has collected articles and other resources on this subject. They also sponsored a podcast on the subject in 2014 which can be accessed on the NIC website. Much of this information was adapted for correctional nursing from a series of articles written by Caterina Spinaris PhD., Executive Director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach which provides training and other materials to support wellness of correctional staff including a monthly newsletter, Correctional Oasis.

I was most surprised to learn from my research for this blog post that when I offered support to co-workers it had a positive effect on me by building resilience. This new idea has me thinking about my work relationships and how I support others to see what I could do better. What resilience building behaviors have caused you to reflect on your own behaviors? Is there more you could do to protect yourself from the negative attributes of your working environment?

If you wish to comment, offer advice or share an experience concerning the subject of staff wellness please do so by responding in the comments section of this post.

Read more about correctional nursing in our book the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!

Photo credit: © designer491 – Fotolia.com

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