The U.S. Department of Justice has tapped the expertise of a UMass Lowell researcher to create a program to improve workplace health and safety for the country's 500,000 correctional officers and staff, a population data shows are at high risk for on-the-job injury, stress, obesity and premature death.
Assistant Prof. Mazen El Ghaziri, associate chair of UMass Lowell's Solomont School of Nursing and a researcher in the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW), will collaborate with correctional officers and health and safety experts on job training procedures that aim to reduce trauma and stress among corrections employees. CPH-NEW promotes practices and policies that improve worker health and safety in complex occupations.
El Ghaziri's latest research is supported by a $160,830 grant from the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within of the U.S. Department of Justice. The goal is to offer the new training protocols at jails, prisons and other correctional facilities across the country. Joining El Ghaziri in the effort is Lisa Jaegers, associate professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at Saint Louis University. Both El Ghaziri and Jaegers lead the National Corrections Collaborative to bring together research and corrections workplace health programs that address the critical health and safety challenges of this workforce.
Corrections employees have some of the worst health outcomes of any hazardous-duty or public-safety workers, a group that includes police officers, firefighters and other first-responders, according to El Ghaziri. Working in a correctional facility requires hypervigilance and carries a high risk of violence and exposure to disease, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The chronic stress often leads to poor eating and exercise habits, sleep disruption and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to El Ghaziri.
They start their jobs healthy and fit, and within three years, because of the psychological and physical toll, they tend to put on weight, experience hypertension and develop depression and PTSD."
Assistant Prof. Mazen El Ghaziri, UMass Lowell
Workplace culture also contributes to poor health outcomes, according to El Ghaziri. Most correctional officers have little control over their schedules due to staffing shortages and their environment often discourages discussions about mental-health issues. As a result, many employees bring their workplace stress home with them, a situation that can harm their personal relationships and families. The job also carries a high level of social stigma, since the public rarely hears about positive initiatives inside jails and prisons.
"A lot of corrections officers really want to make a change and an improvement, and the stigma is an added burden," El Ghaziri said.
The stressors these individuals face add up to high job turnover and deteriorating health. Correctional officers live 10 years less, on average, than other American workers, in part because of high rates of depression and suicide, according to El Ghaziri.
To develop improved workplace training, researchers will draw on the results of previous studies of the experiences of corrections agencies, including the city of St. Louis Division of Corrections and the Connecticut Department of Correction. They will look at workplace conditions in large and small prisons and jails in both urban and rural areas.
One intervention that has demonstrated success is the use of peer mentoring: Pairing a more experienced correctional officer with a new recruit from the academy to talk about the job and related stress. El Ghaziri said that approach helps break down the discomfort around discussing mental health concerns.
After creating the training over the next year, the researchers will follow up with additional studies to determine how well different facilities are able to adopt and integrate the training and specific interventions.