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Burnout: Stress and Management in Criminal Justice Careers

Updated on November 5, 2016


There is no lack of stress in the criminal justice world and perhaps it is one of the reasons that crime is one of the oldest activities and criminal justice is one of the newest fields so social sciences – it is too much to deal with for most people. Crime is caused by stress, perpetuated by stress and even when there is a peaceful resolution, it is stressful and someone likely loses somehow. Occupational stress is notably the number one culprit of chronic stress and somatic stress disorders likely because it is perceived to be controllable despite the number of on-the-job stressors, particularly in the criminal justice field. Occupational stress does not just cause health problems, psychological issues and emotional distress but also causes anger and aggression in an already inflammatory environment (Lieter and Maslach, 2015).

The belief is often that the solutions are easy and just are not done, but in reality, with policy, budget, backlog and other management stressors it is a constant uphill battle full of obstacles to streamline jobs, schedules, communication pathways and the various other stressors. Burnout is the inevitable result for most people in the field because the results of practical justice are fleeting, thankless and depend on too many variables for employees and managers, alike. The purpose of this paper is to discuss burnout in the context of occupational stress, somatic symptomology caused by it, and the research done on various criminal justice fields looking for solutions that have been found helpful but are also most easily practiced and controlled by management.


All workplace studies on stress agree that management failings are the primary cause of sustained stress and potential burnout. The impact of alternative stressors such as safety, unpredictability and decision making that may lead to loss of quality of life all seem to be widely accepted as unavoidable, but the unnecessary occupational stressors of poor management and inefficiency are considered controllable. Structure may be a large factor because it can affect the way communication works and goals are oriented. In criminal justice this is particularly rampant due to the fact that criminal justice organizations serve people, goals are generally focused on efficiency and productivity which are often impossible to reconcile. Managers are expected to accomplish conflicting goals handed down by superiors and other agencies. There are external and competing constituencies placing demands on the organization and its managers at all times due to the political structure of the government and the incompatible goals of other organizations (Stojkovic, Klofas and Kalinich, 2010).

Large-scale organizations like police forces or fire departments are funded and supported by tax payer dollars so certain expectations come hand-in-hand with that support generally in the form of obligatory goals and expectations. A manager having a better idea of whether the organization is a based on the functional systems model or a goal oriented model can aide in creating streamlined processes that meet the higher-up’s expectations (Feely, 1973). For most situations and for meeting the constituents’ expectations a rational-goal approach may be the best approach as it may reconcile what Weber called the four major components of an organization: continuous functions bound by rules, specific sphere of competence, obligations and division of labor, a principle hierarchy and a set of technical rules and norms that regulate conduct to achieve the desired goals.

By examining and explicating the components, the manager can determent consistency for employees that will allow for a more rational, efficient and functionally structured work environment (Feely, 1973). For instance, police organizations tend to be enforcement oriented and priorities and resources are dependent on the locales in which they function. Managers might be responsible for goals that change regularly in a poor, higher crime area but must function with a lower budget therefore proper understanding of the structure in compilation with feedback from officers and the public can assist a manager in focusing on the most achievable goals in the most rational and efficient way for the resources they are provided (Smith, 2003).

The lack of influence allowed by employees on management is listed repeatedly (PDXScholar, 2014) as well as lack of appreciation, scheduling, bullying and toxic work environments (Trevelen, 2015), (Adams, Shakespeare-Finch, and Armstrong, 2014), (Faust and Vander Ven, 2014), (Leiter and Maslach, 2015) – all things that management is responsible for finding the best resolution. Perception of lack of respect was the response of many and that alone is pivotal in management; if managers do not respect their employees, they will not respect their managers. Anything that management can do immediately to improve the work environment should be done to reduce stress for employees already exposed to so much of it. In a study by Adams, Shakespeare-Finch and Armstrong, 2015, emergency medical dispatchers were interviewed, “You don’t get feedback unless you’ve done something wrong.” Further it went on to discuss how when awards were given, management got ceremonies and luncheons and workers were given a handshake at their desk. Likewise, management should work to increase respect between co-workers rather than encourage animosity and competition. In the same study by Adams, et al., one participant responded, “Paramedics, umm, aren’t very thankful to us…they see us as their punching bags.” These are directly and personally manageable stressors that do not require acts of congress to change. Problem Oriented Policing (POP) or Community Oriented Policing (COP) can help management more effectively manage and analyze issues with both staff and the community.

In policing, line officer feedback can be essential to problem solving, ingenuity and goal formulation in a way that proactively meets the needs of the department and the community by proactively collecting data on best methods (Boba and Crank, 2008). Patterns can be identified in repeat problems with management, staff, communication and the goals of the organization reducing future stress of being blind-sided by issues that should have been dealt with long ago. Accountability and analysis are key to reducing negative patterns and encouraging positive ones.


Workplace stress is incredibly detrimental to the individual, the management and the organization. It is costly on both a human and financial level through inefficiency, absenteeism, early retirement, work-related incidents, substance abuse and stress borne diseases and syndromes that can be fatal (Kelty, Gordon, 2014). Stress born syndromes include: eating disorders, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, substance abuse, chronic somatic pain, major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, and migraines. All of these have a co-morbidity with factors such as: ego and willpower depletion, limited self-control, loss of focus and memory, cognitive dysfunction, disassociation, avoidance, and worst of all, suicidal ideation (Hwang, Kim, Kim, Kim, Park and Kim, 2010). These factors may not be wholly preventable in the criminal justice fields, but they are certainly manageable with good leadership and social programs that work for the benefit of the employees. In the study of burnout done by Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach in a 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, they noted three major recurring themes that both produced and perpetuated stress in the workplace: 1) exhaustion, 2) cynicism, and 3) inefficiency. These would be astoundingly more apparent in emergency services and jurisprudence organization due to the amount of trauma and lack of control they have in their jobs.

Excellent methods for reducing stress include fighting cynicism and keeping a sense of humor. Much of the job is thankless, particularly in emergency services, and stress pressures can build due to the nature of the job and the ineffectiveness of management. Humor can soften a mood in a hurry relieving cynicism for a time. It works as a good method to release stress and pressure in a non-threating manner and provides an opportunity for employees to release vulnerabilities they might otherwise stuff in the powder keg. Humor diffuses anger and tragedy in ways that offer release and reconciliation with a particular bad day, incident or mistake. It provides a method of neutralizing the darkness that surrounds much of the work in the criminal justice field and should be appropriately encouraged by managers as a coping mechanism (Pogrebin and Poole, 1988).


The three factors can be further dissected into particular management foibles that are controllable and require little policy change to adjust. In order to limit exhaustion, managers can avoid (or plan for) a variety of things such as long-hours when scheduling, unrealistic expectations, and time consuming miscommunications of policy and protocol. Managers can also pay attention to their management style and how their employees respond to it; finding the appropriate management style for both the structure of the organization and the team is key.

Cynicism is a major problem that managers face and it has viral effects under poor management. Efficacy and commitment take a huge hit when cynicism builds so several perseverance strategies can be employed such as providing relief through job mobility, redeployment to less stressful environments, providing latitude or particularizing job function, reducing ambivalence towards employees and goals (Bjork, 2008). Corrections officers in supermax prisons face a great deal of tension and dysfunction working in an environment in which they are required to be a “bad guy” of sorts in order to maintain power and control over inmates. A great deal of cynicism grows in such a place and can lead good people to go bad so it is imperative that proactive attention and accountability is maintained (Haney, 2008). Positive willpower is absolutely necessary to the job and must be encouraged in any way possible for managers to maintain respect and the right kind of control.

Cynicism can be reduced by circumventing bullying of employees, arbitrary or clique advancement, being condescending and disrespectful, or having unrealistic expectations. Supervisory styles can make a great deal of difference by managers in this regard. In the study done in St. Petersburg, Florida and the Indianapolis, Indiana Police Departments, they found that various management styles had adverse effects on staff. For example, traditionalist supervisors focused on rules and staff micro-management in a way that created resentment among their employees (Engel, 2001). This can breed cynicism and disrespect and is controllable by management and human resources in the hiring process.

Exhaustion comes in particular by way of management through scheduling, personal work ethic and issues that are not work related. Exhaustion is also a product of over focusing, task difficulty, diverted attention and motivation to complete a task (Job, Dweck, and Walton, 2010). Dominating hierarchies of micro-managers and toxic work environments filled with gossip and rumors can be minimized. Inefficacy can be reduced by escaping insufficient resources and training, lack of appreciation, poorly designed job roles and vague goal-setting. Being a traditional supervisor that micro-manages and focuses only on error can only encourage further negativity (Engel, 2001). This negativity can be an exhausting burden on employees so structure and management mitigation and style can be a buffer that lightens the load.

Being aware of employee personal issues to some degree can make a difference as well. Invasion of privacy is obviously not recommended, but an employee suffering from a divorce or custody hearing or illness themselves or with family can wear an employee down emotionally and physically. Being understanding and empathetic as much as possible can open communication pathways that can lead to scheduling, time management and productivity issues that may need resolutions. Bearing in mind that employees who have not offered the information may show signs of it in other ways like working overtime and spending very little time at home. Have resources lined up if necessary, like psychologists or support groups so that work does not become their only coping mechanism and exhaust them to the point of doing the job poorly or burning out entirely (Milczarek, Schenider and Rial Gonzalez, 2009; Antonovsky, 1987; Joustsenniemi, Langinvainio, Mattila, Saarelma, et al., 2012).

Willpower or efficacy is the ability to exert self-control to complete tasks that require focus; control is a limited resource that becomes depleted after exertion, therefore it is directly connected to exhaustion (Job, Dweck, and Walton, 2010). Inefficacy is an issue with many variables: personality, work ethic, health, job skills, confidence level, home-life status, work load, or critical thinking issues. Management should be focused on helping employees adapt to their roles and responsibilities in ways that motivate employees to succeed for not only the organization but also themselves. Particularly important in emergency services is attention to emotional reactions, which have an optimal level for learning and efficacy. Consisting of four overlapping stages that can be retarded by stress: orienting complex, emotional event integration, response selection and sustained emotional context. Too much emotion for lengthy periods have negative effects such as high blood pressure, low immune system and excessive anxiety all of which distract from learning, memorization and efficacy (Gagne, 1984; Weiner, 1979).

Stress also releases cortisol that can damage the hippocampus and affect memory in high levels by reducing synapse and leaving neurons vulnerable to damage, causing long term issues. Emotions help direct attention in learning and memory can be used constructively to produce much better learning, e.g. lecturing an employee too much or criticizing too often can cause an emotional barricade to information particularly if it comes from the manager doing the lecturing and criticizing (Gagne, 1984; Hwang, Kim, Kim, Kim, Park and Kim, 2008).

The worldwide prevalence of PTSD in rescue workers is 10% (Kelly and Vander Ven, 2014) and that is nothing to say of the acute stress, major depressive disorder or general anxiety. Disaster studies of police and agents included 26% of NOPD officers reported major depression after Katrina (Kelly and Vander Ven, 2014) and a study of work-stress in fire departments showed that 1 in 4 professional career firefighters (25.1%) had considered suicide during their career in fire service, whereas approximately one in five (18.4%) volunteer firefighters had (Carpenter, Carpenter, Kimbrel, Flynn, Pennington, et al, 2015). Emergency Medical Technicians showed a five percent to twenty-two percent range in existing studies for PTSD (Donnelly, E., 2011) and Emergency Service Dispatchers show symptoms such as intrusions, flashbacks, hyperarousal, avoidance, and physical stress were found (Adams, Shakespeare-Finch, Armstrong, 2015).

A study on stress and nursing found that 41% suffered at least one somatic symptom due to organizational stress (De Gucht, Fischler and Heiser, 2003). In Wisconsin, state work load analysis found that statewide, the administration was shorthanded by 130 prosecutors (Treleven, 2015) and a random sample of 10% of the Washington State Bar found that 33% suffered from depression, alcohol abuse or cocaine abuse (Lynch, 1997). Researchers on workplace stress and judges agreed that 45 (87%) of the 52 messages were properly categorized as indicators of stress, burnout, or safety concerns (Chamberlin and Miller, 2009) while a capital jury project reports that 36% of jurors have trouble sleeping and eating during and after capital trials (Antonio, 2008). Finally, with inmates, sexual trauma survivors were more likely to have current PTSD (63.5%) than were those without sexual trauma (18.2%) (Brier, Agee, and Deitrich, 2016). Stress was found in every sphere of the criminal justice world and a good deal of it could be mitigated by managers creating proper protocols and training to help with preparedness and minimize unnecessary inefficiency in tough times.


Three themes throughout various studies that are both consistent and summarize the various mechanisms most successful at counter-acting the majority of stress causing failures are: 1) be a coach, 2) be an advocate and 3) be an example. A great deal of the actual management techniques to reduce stress require coaching by way of training, organizing goals and coordinating plays to win. It also requires taking responsibility for the team. If they do something wrong, then they were not trained correctly so it is up to the coach to take responsibility and show them how it is done. Be encouraging and provide recognition for things done correctly, especially when pointing out mistakes. Supportive supervisors tend to build better rapport with colleagues and employees which can develop into respect (Engel, 2001).

Holding the team accountable and keeping them in top shape requires things like making fitness part of the day. By emphasizing nutrition, sleep and exercise the team will know the coach cares and will value general health and welfare as part of the job. Making time for recovery integration by emphasizing family, social time and partnership for the team is also a must (Anatovsky, 1987). As a coach, being encouraging and understanding of individual needs and learning styles (De Gucht, Fischler and Heiser, 2003). Allowing employees to grow in their positions and careers with additional responsibility or latitude so that they become the best they can will reduce stress as long as job roles are still well defined (Leiter and Maslach, 2015). Teaching employees to focus on the things that get accomplished and after trauma, do psychological debriefings to find out where their head is at; get help them help if needed (Tuckey and Scot, 2014).

Being an advocate requires that employees need to know their manager care about them and the work they do. An active supervisor can mean getting down in the dirt with employees to better understand what they are going through and then supporting them when they need resources or defense from other agencies (Engel, 2001). They need to know their manager will have their back if it is expected that they will reciprocate. A good manager will listen and consider employee ideas having no illusions of being right all the time. Helping employees plan the ideal work day and then going from there so they keep focused on what needs to be done and in what priority. Advance and promote by skill and seniority rather than arbitrarily or from crony-istic cohorts; raising rank from within a clique will not go unnoticed (Trevelen, 2015). Allow for flexibility with employees in their positions and consider that their way may be an improved way so let them prove it if it does not defy protocol. Integrate employees with each other by rewarding teamwork and not individuals. Use the show of appreciation to encourage all and recognize individuals with more responsibility or lateral movements to other fields. Cross-train anyone willing so that all jobs have a back-up and there is no lack of challenge or increase in boredom.

Being an example is the best way for coaching and advocating to pay off. To earn respect, complete tasks amicably in was that require no double standards. Do not be a hypocrite and lead by example. A manager’s attitude will be reflected in their employee’s attitude so try to keep it positive (Gange, 1984). For example, defense attorneys may consider that even if they lose a case, they have done their civic duty to prepare a fair trial for their client (McIntyre, 1987). A manager cannot expect anything from employees that they are not willing to do themselves. Be sure to file complaints upward only and in a professional manner to minimize rumor and gossip mills and keep things private and as objective as possible. Create clear communication pathways and instructions, most importantly, getting feedback and learning to adapt; if someone has a problem with the management – find out why and genuinely work to fix it (Boba and Crank, 2008).

In criminal justice the S.A.R.A. model of scanning, analyzing, responding and assessing is typically used to problem solve in various situations. In a variety of medical and psychological studies, the Survey, the B.R.E.N.D.A method is employed to manage problems like substance abuse: biosocial evaluation, report to patient on the results, empathy is used to manage the patient’s response, needs are assessed in order to progress, direct advice is provided and a final assessment is done by the interviewer (Advokat, Comaty, and Julien, 2014). Similarly, a study involving psychological debriefing of employees with disabilities – physical, psychological or emotional - showed debriefing done best in seven steps that combine the efforts of both the criminal justice and psychology fields (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is especially relevant here) (Tuckey and Scott, 2014).

First, an introduction phase in which the manager and the employee set expectations and ground rules of the issue in question or violation being examined. Second, a fact phase involving a detailed discussion of a particular event or trigger causing the problem; facts should be gathered from all parties involved. Third, a thought phase where the manager identifies thoughts, decision processes and personal meanings that have caused a questionable reaction in the employee. The fourth stage is a reaction phase in which the manager identifies the range of emotional responses the employee is having. Fifth is the symptom phase in which the manager identifies any other reactions, physical or mental that the employee may be prone to, preparing for or intending to act upon. The sixth step is the education phase in which the manager educates the employee on how to manage their reactions more appropriately for the work environment and, most importantly, themselves. Finally – and more often in situations requiring suspension – is the re-entry phase in which the issue is forgiven (between all parties, if required), concluded and the employee returns to the job with a new outlook for both acquired by both management and the employee (Tuckey and Scott, 2014; Groomes and Leahy, 2002).

Alternatively, programs from the National Center for Organizational Development such as Civility, Respect, and Engagement in the Workplace (CREW) can help form relationships between coworkers that have been proven to last. In their article Lieter and Maslach, said “In 2011 we published our results…We confirmed that improving workplace civility decreases burnout…gains remained when we followed up one year later. The results of CREW had established new, self-sustaining patterns of social interaction.” It is a week long program for integration. Judge Steven Wallace wrote a list of ten ways to reduce stress that can be applied to the whole criminal justice field. Internal reducers include exercise regularly, get sufficient sleep, avoid guilt, have someone with whom employees can confide their experiences in and never losing a sense of humor. External reducers include keeping current in the law, controlling workloads and schedules, being decisive and then moving on, considering that if in doubt then do not proceed, and demand competence from other criminal justice colleagues for everyone’s sakes.


For all the exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy employees experience, managers can coach them, advocate for them and set an example of success to get them through it. Management may be one of the primary factors of workplace stress, but it does not have to be as it is one of the few controllable factors in the criminal justice field and there is a multitude of options for improving it. Stress can not only debilitate employees, cause burnout and affect the bottom line and goals of the organization but it can also kill, so it is vital that supervisors know how to responsibly manage their employees to minimize stress and burnout.


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