Addressing Burnout In Justice Professionals with Organizational Strategies

Posted by The Carey Group on
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Often overlooked, yet frequently the cause of burnout and stress, organizational strategies are critical to the health and well-being of a team.  

As defined by the World Health Organization and detailed in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), burnout is an “occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition, caused by unsuccessfully managed, chronic workforce stress. The three characteristics/dimensions used to determine employee burnout levels are:  

  • Exhaustion 
  • Cynicism 
  • Efficacy (professional accomplishments) 

Established in 1981 and first used to assess burnout of health and human services professionals, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is often considered the “gold standard” for measuring stress and burnout, complements the WHO definition, and utilizes three similar scales:  

  • Exhaustion 
  • Depersonalization (detachment from self/situation) 
  • Personal accomplishment 

A 2018 Emergency Medicine Education Research Alliance study focused on the MBI and other well-being instruments intended to assess burnout among emergency medicine residents found that burnout directly and negatively impacts quality of life, work-life balance, and career satisfaction. Not surprisingly, high emotional exhaustion and depersonalization rates coincide with high levels of burnout—a common occupational phenomenon in the justice system.

While this information can be a bit exhausting, understand that you’re not alone because stress and burnout can occur in any occupation. While knowing there are proactive tools and approaches to managing burnout and stress through organizational strategies can and should help alleviate hesitation and concerns.


Look at You, First

Whether you're in a leadership or support role in a justice system organization, “looking at” and taking care of yourself first is critical. An assessment of your levels of stress and the manner in which you prioritize quality of life, work-life balance, and career satisfaction helps you identify opportunities to improve your circumstances which should, subsequently, improve those around you. This approach is commonly called the “oxygen mask theory”—applying your oxygen mask first before attempting to help others.  

A few things to consider when conducting your self-assessment include:  

  • What hours am I working? 
  • How often do my hours exceed the full-time work week?  
  • Am I emailing, texting, or chatting with staff on non-emergency matters outside regular business hours? If yes, why?  
  • When was the last time I took a break?  
  • When was the last time I enjoyed time off, uninterrupted by work?  
  • What exercises or activities do I regularly engage in to reduce stress?  
  • Am I effectively communicating and connecting with team members often? 
  • When was the last time I requested feedback/constructive criticism from colleagues and actively listened to the feedback and suggestions?  
  • Do I empower people to lead and have autonomy?  
  • When was the last time I supported a team member’s professional development?  
  • Have I been clear about our values and goals? 
  • Am I aware of team goals? If yes, how am I supporting them? If not, why?  
  • What are my professional goals, and are they (still) being met in this role?  
  • Am I doing one person's job or assuming multiple roles? 
  • How do I typically respond to stress, and is this response benefitting me and others? 
  • When was the last time I laughed or had fun at work? 
  • What was my most recent professional or personal accomplishment?  
  • Is it time for me to move on? 

Asking yourself these questions, and answering them honestly, helps identify your behavior in and out of the workplace and how these behaviors and actions may, directly and indirectly, affect your employees and organizational strategies. The primary intention of the self-assessment is not to focus on you and your goals (inward mindset); rather, to be better able to identify and focus on strategies, goals, and benefits that reduce stress and burnout throughout your organization (outward mindset).


Take Care of Others 

With your self-assessment completed, this is a prime time to meet with colleagues and, as a team, identify opportunities to take care of others in the workplace. As public servants, we are entrusted with the responsibility of delivering services to and protecting the entire community's safety—including that of our staff.  

Regardless of the assigned role in your profession, if expectations are unclear and/or regularly extend beyond your job description, duties, and prescribed work hours, stress and burnout are highly likely. Organizational strategies that reduce stress and burnout, and improve employee health and wellness, include:  

  • Encourage and support “set” work hours.  
  • Regular review, recognition, and compensation for time exceeding regular work hours. 
  • Pay attention to those who work a lot of overtime, know their reasons for doing so, and consider the integrity of their performance depending on the number of hours they’ve worked. 
  • Make a conscious effort to limit non-emergency communications to work hours. 
  • Encourage and support breaks (they are required by federal law). 
  • Ensure employees are utilizing personal time off benefits and that they are truly able to take time off, uninterrupted by work demands. 
  • Offer paid wellness and exercise options during, before, or after shifts. 
  • Regular communications and connection opportunities with team members. 
  • This includes flexing your schedule as a leader to allow time to ‘stop by’ and connect with team members who work evenings, weekends, and holidays. 
  • This also includes constructively sharing feedback to improve and reinforce processes and reduce misunderstandings.  
  • Ask employees what they need and, most importantly, actively listen when they tell you.  
  • Promote, support, and encourage decision-making participation and autonomy.  
  • Offer various professional development opportunities, including certificate programs, conferences, specialized training, and committees and task forces participation.  
  • Identify and communicate values and goals, whether they’re short- or long-term.  
  • Ensure employees within all levels of the organization are aware of the values and goals, and have an active role in achieving them. 
  • Onboarding is a great time to introduce people to values, goals, and team culture—more information on onboarding is detailed in a previous blog, How to Build a Strong Justice System Workforce. 
  • Make yourself aware of team goals—support them and find ways to highlight them. 
  • If team goals don’t align with organizational goals, meet with those who set the goals to develop an understanding of their intent and, when possible, find a way to redefine the goals so they do align/complete organizational goals and strategies.   
  • Be aware of the individual professional goals of team members and, where possible, support them internally.  
  • If opportunities for promotions or specialized positions aren’t an option within your organization, support team members when their professional goals take them elsewhere.  
  • Assess the workforce and respective projects and expectations regularly. 
  • Review and implement caseload standards. 
  • Adjust duties and responsibilities to ensure a workload that is commensurate with the job description and the compensation provided. 
  • Conduct routine desk audits and labor market analyses. 
  • Implement pay structures that regularly recognize people within their current roles. 
  • Implement evidence-based web-based tools and software systems that simplify processes while maximizing tracking, data sharing, and outcomes.  
  • Allow time for deep work. 
  • Review meetings and, where safely possible, cut back on them and/or consolidate to free up time for other job responsibilities. 
  • Implement mindfulness and stress-reduction programs, strategies, training, and therapies, and make them available to and affordable for all employees. Examples include: 
  • Exercise therapy 
  • Stress management intervention 
  • Peer support programs 
  • Employee assistance programs 
  • Meditation therapy, aka, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 
  • Lighten people’s mental loads and increase productivity by creating opportunities and space for humor and fun in the workplace. 
  • Recognize personal and professional accomplishments as close to when they occur as possible, utilizing one or all of these methods for professional accomplishments: 
  • In-person recognition, one-on-one, or in meetings 
  • Staff newsletters/emails  
  • Social media 
  • Media release, depending on the community impact of the accomplishment 
  • Accept the reality that, for some individuals, the best strategy for reducing stress and burnout is moving on/finding a different job.  

Given the 24/7 operations and shift work required for many justice professionals, ‘regular’ work hours definitely vary. As leaders within justice system and mental health professions, prioritizing when and how to share all communications can help alleviate stress and promote work-life balance, especially given the nature of our work.  

Related Reading:  

Burnout among Professionals Working in Corrections: A Two Stage Review 

The Risks and Spread of Burnout in Law Enforcement 

National District Attorneys Association: Well-being is no Longer Optional 

How to Measure Burnout Accurately and Ethically 

Addressing Burnout in the Behavioral Health Workforce Through Organizational Strategies 


How Carey Group Can Help 

Leaders should actively try to implement organizational strategies and best practices that reduce exhaustion, promote optimism, and improve outcomes. If you don’t know where to start or need help, Carey Group’s organizational development can help you build a strong, healthy culture that increases staff retention and excellence in the workplace. To provide more support to your team, the Supervisor’s EBP BriefCASE and the Manager’s EBP BriefCASE are great training tools that can help boost your staff’s skills and knowledge. So start your teams' path to total organizational alignment and talk to a Carey Group consultant today!  

Decades of experience demonstrate that aligning justice systems around evidence-based policies and practices offers the greatest promise of success. Carey Group offers services and products for justice system professionals, from evidence-based consulting to interactive workbooks that help improve the mental health and lives of people involved in the justice system.  

Carey Group’s evidence-based training and consulting services address the needs of the justice system and behavioral health professionals. Training is essential for keeping staff, supervisors, leadership, and stakeholders updated with emerging knowledge and expectations for improved outcomes. Carey Group offers in-person, online, and self-directed courses on evidence-based practices, motivational interviewing, core professional competencies, case planning and management, continuous quality improvement, coaching, and the use of behavior-change tools and supervisor resources.