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Committee Targets Officer Stress

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"Bring your body bags," was the message left by an offender on a probation officer’s cell phone. "I’ll kill you and your family," another offender wrote an officer from prison after his probation was revoked. Threatening letters, verbal intimidation, erratic client behavior, heavier workloads and smaller budgets—they are a daily part of pretrial services and probation officers’ work as they supervise defendants and offenders in the federal system. It all takes a toll on officers’ well-being.

"There are levels of accumulated stress in a probation or pretrial services officer’s job," said Chief Probation Officer Wade Warren in the District of North Dakota. "We’re dealing with more dangerous offenders and increased workloads. In my office, we’re down 13 officers. Meanwhile, we’re under pressure to conduct investigations and create a pristine report for the court on deadline. We’re all worried about how much worse it’s going to get."

Warren is a member of the Officer Wellness Steering Committee that is raising awareness about mental health conditions and the importance of mental wellness for pretrial services and probation officers and staff.

The Committee was established five years ago as an outgrowth of Mental Health Month and Suicide Prevention Month. But its real impetus was the suicide of a well-loved probation officer. Suicide, according to Probation Officer Sarah Johnson in the Western District of Washington, and a Committee member, is a growing problem. She cites the loss of three officers in the last five years to suicide, "a significantly higher rate than in previous years," Johnson said.

The Committee’s initial goals included increasing awareness of the signs and symptoms of burnout and mental health distress, and suicide prevention. They also want to begin to break down officer resistance to seeking help.

"There is a resistance to getting help," said Warren. "We’ve come a long way, but at the end of the day, officers still worry about their jobs if they admit a weakness. There’s still a stigma."

Johnson agrees and hopes the Committee can help change that. "I think we can help officers by increasing awareness that we know—whether they tell us or not—that they’re stressed. We know that the work is inherently stressful and here are some tools that might help," she said.

"With fewer officers and more cases, there is stress," said Committee member Matt Faubert, in the Administrative Office, Office of Probation and Pretrial Services. "The number of reports and deadlines has increased. More clients need to be seen, more information gathered. Officers always have to be on the lookout for something they may have missed, while watching out for their own personal safety. No officer can afford to get complacent."

Districts are encouraged to take advantage of the services of the Federal Occupational Health/Employee Assistance Program for employees and supervisors. An officer wellness program has been developed and incorporated into the training for new officers at the National Training Academy in Charleston, S.C. The Officer Wellness Steering Committee has drafted a national Critical Incident Stress Management procedures guide for districts that is under review. In addition, a DVD has been developed for line officers that runs through scenarios on how to cope with stress.

For the future, the Committee would like to develop a national wellness website as a repository of all the resources available to staff and officers. "Many district websites talk about physical and mental wellness," said Johnson, "but this site would be a kind of clearing house with information on resources, referrals, tips, blogs – anything to do with wellness."

Warren, who completed a tour of duty overseas and saw what worked for soldiers in combat, is a proponent of biofeedback and life coaches to handle stress, along with taking the time to exercise. "The more stressed you are, the more your ability to do your job is impacted," he said. "There are indicators when there is too much stress and officers can be helped to recognize them."