Researchers Seek Solutions

Close up of a hand of a corrections officer locking a cell door

Researchers are developing solutions to promote health and well-being among correctional officers.

By Karen Angelo

Correctional officers are at high risk for suicide, depression, obesity, hypertension and early death due to chronic disease. According to Martin Cherniack, who directs the Center for Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) at University of Connecticut, these serious health issues develop soon after being hired to work in corrections, but there are ways to help. 

These were some of the findings discovered by Cherniack and other researchers as part of the CPH-NEW Health Improvement Through Employee Control (HITEC) study. The HITEC study found that within the first three years on the job, correctional officer health declines to a level similar to that of an officer who has been on the force for 15 years or more. 

Yet national research attention on correctional officers has lagged behind other public safety professions such as police officers and fire fighters. That’s until CPH-NEW and the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center convened a national group at the first 2014 Symposium for Correctional Worker Health in July 2014 to focus the national research spotlight on correctional workers. 

“I was really struck by the enthusiasm and collaboration among researchers, union leaders, correctional officers and federal officials,” says Cherniack. “We know correctional officers have health issues and we know the reasons. Now it’s time for solutions.” 

The conference featured speakers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Institute of Justice, as well as presenters from both academic research programs and direct service professionals. Researchers presented data on Total Worker HealthTM – an integrated program approach to prevent worker injury and illness and to advance health and well-being. 

“Correctional officers internalize their work, don’t express their emotions, tend to be on edge all the time and are always cautious,” says Cherniack, who oversees that targets health correctional officers at UConn Department of Protection. 

The study, in its seventh year, tests the effectiveness of interventions such as a mentoring program that pairs a senior officer with a new officer and a web-based health education program. The research team has compared two types of health promotion efforts – a top-down, “best practices” approach, and a participatory approach in which correctional officers designed the interventions. 

“At the conference, we shared the results of our research project and learned from other researchers how they are developing and evaluating solutions,” says Cherniack. As a result of the conference, research and intervention research strategies were developed, laying the groundwork to apply for future grants and advance policies that protect and promote health in this high-risk workforce.