Job burnout and turnover among those who work for correctional agencies has increased dramatically in recent years and is of primary concern to administrators and staff alike. Recent efforts to curb the exodus have focused on recruiting individuals who are theoretically well-suited for prison work, including former or current members of the United States military. We evaluate this strategy by assessing the presence of a “veteran effect” for those employed by the Utah Department of Corrections while also examining its impact across other criminal justice agencies where similar strategies have been implemented, including the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the Salt Lake City Police Department. Our results indicate that correctional employees are especially susceptible to burnout relative to those in police work, and that veteran status might insulate staff members from reporting these feelings. Implications for theory and policy are discussed, especially as they relate to addressing the current staffing crisis and litany of other benefits that accompany hiring military veterans as corrections personnel.
Forthcoming (2023) at the journal: Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
Note: © 2023, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. The final article will be available, upon publication, via its DOI: 10.1037/law0000406
The United States’ correctional system is currently facing an unprecedented staffing crisis characterized by high rates job burnout and dissatisfaction, mental illness, and subsequent turnover among frontline workers (Montgomery, 2022). For example, a recent report by the Texas State Auditor’s Office found that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ)—the largest employer of correctional staff in the country—had a 40.3% turnover rate in 2021; an increase of almost 7% since 2020 (Berry, 2022). By the same token, in Washington State and Kentucky, approximately 1 in 3 correctional officers meet the clinical criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (James & Todak, 2018; Spinaris & Denhoff, 2012; Taylor & Swartz 2022), the prevalence of which partly accounts for the fact that correctional staff evince the highest risk of suicide (Stack & Tsoudis, 1997) and premature mortality (Cheek & Miller, 1982) relative to any other profession. To this end, Violanti (2017) most recently examined the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance Database (NOMS) and found that suicide risk was significantly higher (~40%) among corrections personnel relative to the U.S. working population. Effects were especially pronounced on the basis of gender, whereby suicide risk among female correctional employees was nearly double those of other U.S. female workers.
Several factors have been linked to the mass exodus. Chief among them is the multifaceted occupational mandate of correctional officers, the characteristics of which produce a unique set of stressors that impose significant costs on employees, their families, and the agencies for whom they work (Griffin et al., 2012). Indeed, correctional officers are tasked with supervising and managing dangerous offenders while contending with understaffing, limited resources, insufficient training, and administrative constraints (Denhof et al., 2014). Agencies at both the state and federal level have responded by actively recruiting individuals whose prior experiences and background characteristics are theoretically well suited to prison work. One strategy has been to hire former or current members of the United States armed forces (Trigg, 2021)—an effort recently illustrated by the campaigns of the TDCJ and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), whose respective hiring mantras are explicitly veteran-friendly.1 Targeting individuals with military experience is appealing to administrators for several reasons. First, both the military and prison systems are based on structure, order, and the chain of command (Brooke, 2018). Second, service members and correctional staff alike often work long hours and are explicitly encouraged to maintain a sense of composure and hypervigilance in anticipation of danger. Third, individuals with prior military experience tend to have greater proficiency in firearms training, physical conditioning, and critical incident response training than do nonveterans (Reingle-Gonzalez et al. 2019). Fourth, a career in corrections may appeal to veterans because their prior military service may count toward their pension and expedite the hiring process regarding background checks. Collectively, these points suggest that the organizational overlap between the respective institutions could be an asset for veterans who are interested in a career in corrections.
Although the sentiment that military veterans constitute ideal recruits has gained popularity among correctional agencies, this notion has yet to be empirically substantiated. Indeed, scholars have only recently begun to discuss and investigate the effects of prior military service on indicators of job performance, such as job burnout (Logan et al., 2022; Moran et al., 2019; see also Burton, 2022). Our focus here is on differences in occupational adaptation between veteran and nonveteran correctional staff in Utah. We are primarily interested in the degree to which military veterans confer an advantage across indices of job burnout. On the one hand, congruent with the logic of recruitment officers, it could be that prior military experiences buffer the difficulties associated with prison work and imbue staff with a sense of confidence and the ability to perform tasks more competently. On the other hand, anecdotal accounts suggest that veteran status might serve as a liability for correctional agencies, especially for those whose past experiences have had deleterious effects on their mental and emotional well-being (Fleming et al., 2013). Irrespective of outcome, our analyses are informed by the same presupposition: Military veterans constitute a unique group, based on their past experiences, which should affect their ability to work in the correctional environment.
The sources of stress for correctional staff are varied and occur at both the individual- and aggregate-level. At the individual-level, stressors regarding the management of incarcerated persons and psychosocial stressors are of particular concern. With respect to the former, data from the National Institute of Justice indicates that approximately 2,000 correctional staff are injured by incarcerated persons annually (Brower et al., 2013). Similarly, 40% of correctional officer deaths occurring at work stem from conflicts with incarcerated persons. Although the reasons for these conflicts vary across facilities, they are partially attributable to the fact that many institutions are overcrowded and house individuals who are actively involved in prison gangs, drug markets, and who also suffer from substance abuse and mental health disorders (Brower, 2013; see also James & Glaze, 2006; Martin et al., 2012). Correctional staff also bear witness to traumatic events including, but not limited to, suicides and interpersonal conflicts between incarcerated persons, such as homicide (Ellison & Jaegers, 2022; Fusco et al., 2022). With respect to psychosocial stressors, correctional staff often experience chronic fatigue, isolation, and withdrawal from family and friends to whom they are unable to relate certain aspects of their job, including the experience of direct or vicarious trauma (Ross et al., 2016). Isolation and withdrawal are also a byproduct of the public’s misconceptions about the nature of prison work, who largely see correctional staff as engaging in dehumanizing practices (Higgins et al., 2022).
At the aggregate-level, correctional staff are faced with role ambiguity and conflict in the face of diminishing resources. On the one hand, they are expected to maintain control over incarcerated persons (through coercive and noncoercive means); on the other hand, they are expected to provide rehabilitative support to the same individuals (Armstrong & Griffin, 2004; Logan et al., 2022; Worley & Worley, 2011). Yet the balance between order maintenance and rehabilitation is compromised by structural and organizational characteristics and constraints. For example, staffing shortages among correctional officers in Nebraska have resulted in an increased reliance on overtime hours and cost the state nearly $48 million in taxpayer money over the past three years (Alamdari & Xu, 2022). To this end, research suggests that forced overtime among correctional staff corresponds with an increased incidence of occupational accidents and mistakes, including clerical errors (Ross, 2016).
Correctional employees also have differing roles within the work environment. This division is most clearly seen in the formal distinctions between “sworn” and “non-sworn” staff. Note that for our purposes, the sworn/non-sworn dichotomy is used by researchers and practitioners in this area to describe two “sides of the house” within the law enforcement agencies. In practice, the distinction is relatively straightforward: sworn officers are generalists imbued with the power to take law enforcement action, including the use of force when appropriate, while non-sworn staff are generally given more specific tasks, including professional responsibilities such as medical care, dispatch and communications, core administrative work, psychiatric and counseling services, and even important labor such as servicing the mechanical plant operations. Adams and Mastracci (2020, p. 321) explain the distinction within corrections agencies:
“Sworn employees include correctional officers who work behind prison walls, and parole agents with full law enforcement authority whose work can be indistinguishable from investigators in more traditional policing agencies. [Non-sworn] employees tasked with providing medical, dental, and psychiatric services work alongside locksmiths, furniture construction managers, and drug rehabilitation specialists. To the degree that a correctional facility is a city, [non-sworn] employees work alongside sworn officers to manage the city and its residents. Though their work activities, environments, and stressors may appear differentiated, [non-sworn] and sworn employees generally inhabit the same environment.”
Both police and corrections agencies rely heavily on non-sworn staff, and national data suggests they comprise up to 48% of law enforcement staff (Banks et al., 2016), though this rate varies strongly depending on the agency context, with corrections and sheriffs agencies employing a higher share of non-sworn compared to municipal police (Gardner & Scott, 2022). Academic research has tended to focus much more heavily on the sworn employees in law enforcement agencies, a focus that mirrors the lesser status that non-sworn employees can receive within the organization, as “sworn officers may be treated as members of the organization, while [non-sworn] may be treated as employees” (McCarty & Skogan, 2013, p. 70). This disparate treatment may be a source of additional stress. Relatively few studies explore how this important variation in sworn and non-sworn roles might impact burnout. For example, McCarty and Skogan (2013) find that the burnout process is relatively similar across sworn and non-sworn staff, while Adams and Mastracci (2020) find that differences in emotional labor suggest different underlying processes in how burnout develops in the two employee groups, though they note that because sworn (male) and non-sworn (female) roles are often strongly sex-coded in law enforcement. This aligns with meta-analytic findings that find women experience more emotional exhaustion than men, while men tend to have more depersonalization (Purvanova & Muros, 2010).
Just as the sources of stress among correctional staff are wide-ranging, so too are their manifestations. Over time, employees often develop an array of co-occurring physical and mental health issues in response to environmental stressors including—but not limited to—heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, impotence, stomach ulcers, contagious diseases, and, as mentioned, depression, anxiety, and PTSD (Worley et al., 2022). These afflictions negatively impact the day-to-day operations of prisons. Staff suffering from one or more of the aforementioned disorders are more likely to exhibit signs and symptoms of job burnout.
Burnout is of specific concern when considering the work lives of corrections personnel, and the earliest formulation of the phenomenon was the result of studies carried out among law enforcement officers (Maslach & Jackson, 1982). Researchers define burnout as “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that frequently occurs among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind” (Maslach & Jackson, 1982, p. 99; see also Griffin et al., 2012). Its principal components consist of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (Lee & Ashforth, 1996; Schaufeli et al., 2001). Emotional exhaustion is “a sense of feeling drained and emotionally hollow” (Mastracci & Adams, 2020, p. 3) while depersonalization links more closely to a cynicism and the view of people at work being sources of problems. Depersonalization can affect the views of both co-workers and the public, where “constant confrontation with the human face of our country's most severe social problems almost inevitably engenders in some officers such a dim view of the public they are supposed to serve” (Daus & Brown, 2012, p. 306).
The World Health Organization (2019) recognizes burnout as an official diagnosis and is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. Burnout is not classified as a medical condition, but rather as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.2 Its symptoms are characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout is one of the most commonly studied phenomenon in organizational settings (Lee & Ashforth, 1996; Schutte et al., 2000; Swider & Zimmerman, 2010) because of the intense and adverse effects it has on agencies and personnel, including absenteeism, work disability, and turnover. The prison environment produces high levels of burnout in its officers (Lambert & Hogan, 2009), and burnout is a known correlate of intention to leave the corrections profession (Vickovic et al., 2022). The adverse effects of burnout on personal and organizational outcomes make it of central interest for understanding employee well-being in the criminal justice context. Burnout and its consequences among criminal justice employees are a common focus for researchers, and these studies confirm that respective careers in corrections and law enforcement consistently produce very high levels of burnout in its employees (Adams & Mastracci, 2020; Hawkins, 2001; Kop & Euwema, 2001; Schaible & Six, 2016).
The extant literature on the sources and manifestations of correctional officer stress underscores the fact that prisons are exceptionally demanding work environments; a notion theoretically congruent with research in the sociology of mental health and the stress process paradigm (Pearlin et al., 1981). Scholarship from this area links the aforementioned workplace characteristics to negative outcomes for organizations and employees (Dewe et al., 1993; Karasel & Theorell, 1990). According to the model, organizational dynamics affect job conditions which, in turn, influence the well-being of staff. Some jobs are inherently complex with high levels of decision latitude that require workers to use individual skillsets; others are characterized by dangerous working conditions and simple, monotonous work where employees exert little-to-no control over any aspect (Van Der Doef & Maes, 1999). Jobs characterized by the former can buffer the onset of stress while jobs characterized by the latter (including prison work) can exacerbate it (Griffin et al., 2012; Link et al., 1993).
The effects of prison work on the manifestations (and subsequent consequences) of stress are not uniform across individuals, however; they are instead contingent on the background characteristics and life experiences of the individuals recruited and hired by correctional agencies. Indeed, a corollary of the stress process paradigm is person-environment (PE) fit theory (Edwards & Caplan, 1998). It states that occupational outcomes are most optimal when personal attributes and environmental characteristics are congruent (i.e., when fit is highest). As mentioned, prison officials have reasoned that the PE fit between current or former service members and the prison environment should be high. Some scholars have referred to this as the “veteran effect” in the context of criminal justice careers (Logan et al., 2022). This rationale is at least partly based on the idea that military service is synonymous with a litany of positive traits such as stoicism, discipline, leadership, patience, and overall competence (Willbach, 1948).
Assuming their training and field experience facilitated the development and honing of the emotional and physical skills (e.g., de-escalation training) necessary to function as a prison officer, military veterans may be less susceptible to adverse outcomes like job burnout (Hartley et al., 2013; Ivie & Garland, 2011). Moreover, the U.S. prison system is paramilitaristic in organization, rank, and dress (e.g., terminology, standard uniforms, roll calls, basic training, etc.) and the overlap between institutions might also foster resiliency among correctional staff (Logan et al., 2022). However, while many believe that prior military service is an asset for prison work, others are skeptical. They caution that veteran status could pose a liability for correctional agencies, especially among veterans who have experienced trauma during their service. Consider, for example, arguments made by Fleming and colleagues (2013) who posited that prisons resemble warzones and “…varying scenarios including assaults, hostage situations and inmate suicide” can be triggering for military veterans (p. 40). Given that interpersonal violence between incarcerated persons and toward staff is an established source of stress among correctional personnel (Ellison & Jaegers, 2022; Fusco et al., 2022), it could be especially pronounced among military veterans and increase the likelihood of burnout.
Despite publicized strategies by state and federal correctional agencies to hire veterans, it is unclear as to whether veteran status serves as a protective or risk factor among correctional staff. The extent to which military service affects prison work is an understudied area, limited mostly to theoretical debates and calls for research about who should work in prison (Burton et al., 2022; see also Moran et al., 2019). To our knowledge, only one empirical study examining the “veteran effect” in the context of prison work has been conducted to date. Logan et al. (2022) recently compared correctional staff with and without military backgrounds across metrics of job burnout and dissatisfaction in 12 Kentucky state prisons. Results from their analyses suggest that veterans and nonveterans have far more similarities than differences in job outcomes, including burnout. Interestingly, the authors did observe inverse relationships regarding the degree of dissatisfaction with supervisors whereby veterans were less likely than nonveterans to report feeling these feelings.
The Current Study
Notwithstanding its contribution, the analyses conducted by Logan et al. (2022) raise several important questions, two of which are addressed in the current study. First, their analysis was limited to Kentucky prisons, thus raising questions of generalizability regarding the effects of military service among correctional staff employed in/by other states and Departments of Correction. The data on which our study is based comes from the state of Utah and thus allows us to examine the degree to which prior results are a function of geographic location. Second, Logan and colleagues allude to the fact that the extant literature on the “veteran effect” among criminal justice practitioners focuses almost exclusively on occupational stress and burnout in police work. Indeed, police agencies across the country are facing similar difficulties in recruitment, retainment, and turnover, and the logic that prior military service serves as an asset has been explored (Hartley et al., 2013; Ivie & Garland, 2011; Shernock, 2017). Yet it is unclear as to whether the effects of military experience are uniform across similar outcomes (e.g., job burnout) for individuals employed by different criminal justice agencies (e.g., police officers vs. correctional officers). We address this question by analyzing multiple agencies within the same state—including the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office (SLCSO), the Salt Lake City Police Department (SLCPD), and the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC)—to assess the generality of the “veteran effect” across different criminal justice organizations.
To this end, police officers and sheriff's deputies are responsible for maintaining public safety by responding to emergency calls, enforcing laws, and investigating crimes. Corrections officers, on the other hand, are responsible for the custody, control, and care of individuals who have been incarcerated or placed on probation/parole. Despite their distinct roles, there is tremendous overlap between the occupational cultures and responsibilities of police officers, sheriff's deputies, and corrections officers (Farkas & Manning, 1997). For example, police officers and sheriff's deputies are involved in the initial apprehension and transport of individuals to correctional facilities. Corrections officers may also work in tandem with police officers and sheriff's deputies to identify and prevent contraband from entering jails and prisons, investigate crimes occurring within correctional facilities, and supervise individuals in the probation and parole context. Additionally, many law enforcement officers, including police officers, sheriff's deputies, and corrections officers, may transition between these roles throughout their careers. For example, due to the dual policing and corrections nature of sheriff’s agencies, it is common for deputies to begin their careers on the “custody” (corrections) side of the agency before transitioning to policing duties. As officers cross over into other roles within the system, they bring with them their occupational attitudes and experiences. These professional overlaps and transitions further emphasize the importance of understanding officer stress and wellbeing across these agency types to gain a comprehensive understanding of officer wellbeing across the criminal justice system as a whole.
Data and Participants
Data collection for the current study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Utah (#00111903). We worked with three agencies, each representing the largest municipal policing, sheriff’s office, and corrections agency in the same state, to develop a large survey project aimed at understanding overall officer wellness. The participating agencies were located in Utah and had overlapping jurisdictions. They varied in size, scope, and work environment. The first agency was a city police department (Salt Lake City Police Department, SLCPD) that served a metropolitan area with more than 1.2 million residents, though because it is the capitol city of the state and home to the largest business enterprises, its nighttime population is estimated to be much lower. SLCPD employed about 600 sworn officers and offered full-scope police services such as patrol, investigation, and special functions. The second agency was a sheriff’s office (Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, SLCSO) that operated in the same county as SLCPD and provided full-service contract policing services to unincorporated municipalities, as well as operating the only jail facility in the county. The third agency was a state-level Department of Corrections (Utah Department of Corrections, UDOC) that managed state prisons, halfway houses, and probation and parole offices throughout the state. The main prison where most employees worked was also in the same county as SLCPD and SLCSO.3
The agencies involved provided the research team with complete email lists for all current employees. All employees at all three agencies were invited to participate through email in July 2018, and the study period allowed for completion of the survey within thirty days. Those who agreed to participate completed an electronic questionnaire through the Qualtrics platform. Out of 4,451 email invitations sent, we received 1,969 responses, resulting in a sample size and response rate (44.24%) far higher than the norm found in the literature using survey methodology in the law enforcement officer context (Nix et al., 2019). We excluded 48 responses that had more than 20% of the items missing for excessive missingness. After accounting for row-wise missingness, the analytic sample included 1,896 respondents from the three agencies, of whom 1,320 were sworn and 585 were non-sworn employees. The respondents were predominantly white (69.8%) and male (53.4%), and about a third of them had previous or current military service (32%). The respondents had an average tenure of 13.6 years (SD = 9.1) and an average age of 42.7 years (SD = 10.9). About two-fifths of the respondents had some higher education beyond high school (40.8%). The respondents were distributed across the agencies as follows: Agency 1 (police) had 314 respondents (16.3%), Agency 2 (sheriff) had 662 respondents (34.5%), and Agency 3 (corrections) had 945 respondents (49.2%). Table 1 reports the descriptive statistics of the sample. Because of the marked sex differentials in sworn versus non-sworn roles, and due to previous research documenting differential experiences for burnout in these populations (Adams & Mastracci, 2020; Purvanova & Muros, 2010), we also report the sample descriptives across role in Appendix Table A2.
We report on three outcome variables in this study: burnout, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization. These latter two are recognized as components of the former, and the two components measure different experiences of burnout (Maslach, 2017; Maslach & Jackson, 1982). Seven-point Likert scales (min. 1, max 7) were used to measure underlying items drawn from the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach et al., 1981), which were thereafter used to create latent measure scales (Santos, 1999) of burnout (seven items, α = .85), emotional exhaustion (four items, α = 0.85), and depersonalization (three items, α = 0.75). The MBI and its constructs are well validated, with research stretching back several decades (Maslach, 2017; Schaufeli et al., 2001). Further, the scales have been used across a wide variety of fields, including ones that are strongly sex-coded such as nursing (Poghosyan et al., 2009), physicians (Rohland et al., 2004), and law enforcement officers (Adams & Mastracci, 2019). The subscales of the MBI have strong validity across occupations and even countries (Schutte et al., 2000), making it well suited in the current research, which locates its investigation in corrections, but recognizes that within corrections are employees drawn from a number of other occupations such as physicians, nurses, carpenters, and more. Full item wording for each measure and justification for using a smaller sample of items from the MBI is reported in Appendix Table A1.
Independent and Control Variables
Our primary independent variable is prior military service, which is based on the self-reports of participants (1 = yes). As part of our strategy to understand how burnout and military service might differ across different criminal justice professions, we also include a variable indicating if a respondent works for the municipal policing (our reference category), sheriff’s department, or state corrections. To this end, we control for whether the respondent is in a non-sworn (reference) or sworn position. Previous research has established that a respondent’s sex may result in different levels of burnout in corrections (Carlson et al., 2003) and policing (McCarty, 2013) populations, and so we include a dummy variable for female respondents. Similarly, scholars have previously established that racial dynamics in the law enforcement workplace have widespread impacts on officers (Hassell & Brandl, 2009; Kochel, 2022)—a pattern which has also been observed (albeit with mixed results) in studies of correctional officer burnout (Armstrong et al., 2015; Lambert et al., 2016; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000). As such, we include a dummy variable for officer race (white = 1). We also include a measure of whether a respondent has achieved a level of higher education (2-year degree or higher), as it is (1) commonly included in models of burnout for both corrections and law enforcement (Hawkins, 2001; Lambert et al., 2015) and (2) its effects are nuanced and contingent on the specific dimension of job burnout being examined. For example, Logan and colleagues (2022) found that more education among prison staff corresponded with increased depersonalization, weaker perceptions of ineffectiveness, but had no impact on emotional exhaustion. This is especially relevant in the current study because military veterans tend to better-educated relative to nonveterans (Armor & Sackett, 2004).
We employ the following general model specification to identify the relationships of interest:
Using an ordinary least squares specification (Angrist & Pischke, 2009), we identify the relationship between the outcome variables of interest described above, prior military service, and sworn law enforcement status. We control for a vector of covariates X (see earlier description for operationalization of all variables). For all models, standardized parameters were obtained by fitting the model on a standardized version of the dataset. 95% Confidence Intervals (CIs) and p-values were computed using a Wald t-distribution approximation.
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for Variables Used in Analysis
Previous Military Service
We are interested in examining how prior military service and being a sworn officer influenced the burnout levels of law enforcement officers. We measured burnout using three models: overall burnout (Model 1, R2= .10), and its two components of emotional exhaustion (Model 2, R2=.052) and depersonalization (Model 3, R2= .151). We also controlled for other factors such as years of service, sex, race, education and agency type. Our analysis across three separate regression models revealed some interesting patterns. All three models were signficant at the model level, but interesting variation across models was noted. Full model results are reported in Table 2. Standardized results for all three models are also visualized in Appendix Figures A1, A2, and A3.
Assessing the Link Between Veteran Status and Burnout
Our main finding is that having prior military service was associated with lower emotional exhaustion (b = -0.219, p < .05) among law enforcement employees. This suggests that military veterans may have some skills or resources that help them cope with the stressful demands of their job. However, prior military service did not have any statistically signficant effect on depersonalization (b = -0.025, p = 0.803), which is the tendency to detach from one’s emotions and view others as objects, tools, or problems. This implies that prior military service does not necessarily protect against the struggle with maintaining empathy and compassion in their work; however, it also suggests that military service does not exacerbate feelings of depersonalization. Furthermore, military service was not associated with overall burnout and, consistent with prior research, suggests that the relationship between occupational and sociodemographic factors are nuanced and a function of the type of burnout being examined (Hawkins, 2001; Lambert et al., 2015; Logan et al., 2022).
Additional Sources of Burnout
We also find that being a sworn officer was detrimental for all three indicators of burnout: overall burnout (b = 0.431, p < .001), emotional exhaustion (b = 0.260, p < .05) and depersonalization (b = 0.651, p < .001). This indicates that sworn officers face more challenges and pressures than non-sworn officers in their work environment. Sworn officers may have to deal with more violence, danger and bureaucracy than non-sworn officers, which could increase their levels of burnout and its components.
The control variables showed mixed results across the models: years of service increased overall burnout (b = 0.034, p < .001), emotional exhaustion (b = 0.025, p < .001), and depersonalization (b = 0.046, p < .001); while higher age tended to protect against those same effects, with lower levels or reported burnout (b = -0.032, p < .001), emotional exhaustion (b = -0.027, p < .001), and depersonalization (b = -0.038, p < .001). Compared to males, female employees reported increased emotional exhaustion (b = 0.217, p < .05); white employees reported higher overall burnout (b = 0.237, p < .05) and depersonalization (b = 0.363, p < .01) compared to non-white employees; and having higher education did not affect any outcome. Our observations regarding the effects of job experience and sex comport with recent research by Logan and colleagues (2022) and metanalytic expecations for higher emotional exhaustion amongst female employees (Purvanova & Muros, 2010), but run counter to their findings regarding education as well as the effects of race (see also Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000). Compared to employees at a municipal police department, working for a sheriff’s office did not affect any outcome, while working for a corrections agency was consistently associated with increased overall burnout (b = 0.418, p < .001), emotional exhaustion (b = 0.437, p < .001), and depersonalization (b= 0.400, p < .001). This confirms prior research that the corrections environment, even compared to peer police and sheriffs agencies, is one prone to inflict heavy personal costs on officers (Adams & Mastracci, 2020; Crawley, 2004; Forman-Dolan et al., 2022; Lambert et al., 2015).
Stress is endemic to prison and police work; however, the degree to which it manifests negatively is contingent on several factors. In the current study we assessed whether veteran status influences the likelihood of reporting job burnout among correctional staff and police officers. In general, we find partial support for the idea that military veterans are insulated from the adverse effects of stress exposure that accompanies working in these environments. These findings have implications for future research in this area.
Theoretically, our analyses modestly support the presence of a “veteran effect” among those working in institutional corrections and policing. Although the causal mechanisms underlying this effect are nuanced, they reflect at least two interrelated factors that are consistent with PE fit theory: the effects of basic training and self-selection into criminal justice professions. All military recruits are subject to basic military training (BMT) upon enlisting in the armed forces. The frequency and duration of BMT varies and is contingent on the branch of service, yet the underlying goal is the same: to foster a sense of confidence in the face of adverse environmental conditions.
This is accomplished by completing an array of courses ranging from first aid training to weapons proficiency to crisis intervention and de-escalation. It is possible that core competency in these areas serves as a buffer against many of the aforementioned stressors that characterize prison and police work because they are better prepared than nonveterans to handle them. In the case of conflicts with IPs or suspects (established sources of stress), for example, experience in crisis intervention training and de-escalation may be especially valuable as a means of reducing the likelihood of experiencing trauma—both direct and vicarious—for all parties. Consider, for example, the Tri-Service Behavioral Health Training Program offered to military members stationed at Joint Base San Antonio, who learn techniques specifically designed to help calm patients experiencing medical crises (DeKunder, 2017). Importantly, the primary focus of the program is de-escalation via verbal skills to respond to potentially aggressive patients. Indeed, a fundamental goal of prison and police organizations is to establish order maintenance and compliance without the use of force, and the degree to which military veterans are more adept at diffusing potentially hostile situations could better align them with the job characteristics of prison and police work. This logic also comports with points recently made the Community Policing Dispatch and Veterans’ Transition Forum (Trigg, 2022), whose collaborative efforts have eventuated in the “Keep America Safe” program. This initiative was designed specifically to address the turnover issue by leveraging veterans’ experience in de-escalation training to handle stressful, often violent, situations.
Table 2 OLS Regression Models Predicting Burnout and Its Primary Components
+ p < 0.1, * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01, *** p < 0.001; Reference categories: Male, Non-White, Municipal Police Department.
Notwithstanding the potential influence of these training modalities among veterans, two considerations are noteworthy. First, we are unable to account for whether the participants in our study received CIT training during their service. Relatedly, it is unclear as to the percentage of military veterans across the country who are offered or have received CIT during basic training—as either corrections or police officers.
Beyond the effects of basic training, it is possible that the observed relationship between veteran status and burnout is a byproduct of self-selection whereby recruits are attracted to the characteristics of prison and police work because of the similarity it bears to life in the military. The military ethos is based on deference to authority vis-à-vis the chain of command and veterans may be more accepting of the highly routinized environment and demands placed on them by their supervisors. In this regard, recruiters of the armed forces target those who score higher on measures of cognitive and emotional resilience, stress management, optimism, and expectation management. Collectively, these traits comprise the psychological concept of “hardiness”—a general mindset associated with high performance under a range of stressful conditions (Lovering et al., 2015). Working as corrections or police officers may represent a challenge to military veterans—as a way to test their resolve in the face of adversity. Thus, to the degree that correctional staff and police officers evince metrics of hardiness in the workplace, they may be less likely to show signs and symptoms of emotional exhaustion, as our results indicate.
From a policy perspective, our study represents an important line of inquiry given the recent hiring and recruitment strategies of correctional and law enforcement agencies nationwide that explicitly target former and current service members. This is especially timely, considering the rates of turnover and burnout among the two workforces, which collectively employ the largest number of individuals in the criminal justice system (Burton et al., 2022; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). Most importantly, seeking out former or current service members could be a way for corrections and policing agencies to blunt their respective staffing crises.
Yet there are several other compelling arguments for hiring veterans. First, prior military experience may augment or substitute existing training practices that correctional and policing agencies either do not offer or provide with less rigor. Second, as mentioned, recruiting military veterans may increase the efficiency of the hiring process due to having background checks expedited. Third, agencies may capitalize on word-of-mouth recruiting from veterans who are already employed, thus ensuring a smoother transition. As both corrections and policing agencies continue to raise concerns about a crisis in recruitment and turnover (Adams et al., 2023; Vickovic et al., 2022), there is increasing effort among agencies to leverage “lateral transfers”—recruiting already-employed officers from other agencies—and network effects among officers with military experience may prove valuable to agencies seeking to increase their sworn numbers. Fourth, as mentioned, prior service may count toward time served in an institution and employee pensions. Fifth, hiring military veterans may improve public perceptions of corrections and policing regarding the qualifications of recruits. Scholars have pointed to the lack of experience as contributing to poor policing outcomes, including higher rates of serious complaints and use-of-force (Paoline & Terrill, 2007; Shjarback, 2023). However, the extant research makes it difficult to parse out whether it is lack of experience, or simply younger age, that is driving these relationships. Further complicating the picture, states facing severe turnover and poor recruitment have sought to attenuate those effects by lowering the age requirement to become a corrections officer (Reed, 2022).
Military veterans necessarily enter corrections environments older and more experienced than their nonveteran counterparts. To this end, it may also work to the benefit of the many veterans who struggle to find meaningful/gainful employment upon returning from service (Hammer et al., 2017; Roy et al., 2020; Schlosser et al., 2010). As some commentators have pointed out, the military is highly effective at training its recruits to operate within the military context; at the same time, it does an “…extremely poor job at reversing that training or preparing them before sending them back into civilian life” (Zogas, 2017, pp. 4-5). By hiring veterans to work in corrections and policing, the need to “retrain” individuals could be minimized. Furthermore, it might be fruitful for corrections and police agencies to adopt measures that are similar to the armed forces in terms of general screening and recruiting—particularly on the aforementioned psychological dimensions of hardiness, so as to maximize PE fit across all demographics. However, it should be noted that the U.S. military should prioritize successful reintegration, irrespective of whether service members decide to pursue a career in corrections. Sixth, to the extent that military veterans are less likely to report emotional exhaustion, veteran-centric hiring practices may also serve as a potential way to address staff-related lawsuits stemming from increases in institutional violence and suicide, as past research has shown that correctional staff burnout and its principal components are robust predictors of each (Cramer et al., 2017; Isenhardt & Hostettler, 2020; Isenhardt et al., 2019).
Limitations and Future Research
The results and limitations of the current study offer several avenues for future research. First, our measure of prior military experience is based on self-report, as opposed to official or administrative, data and recent research indicates that individuals may embellish or lie about their military histories—a term referred to as “stolen valor” (Weisz, 2023). Similarly, the self-reported measure also prohibits us from distinguishing between various types of military service (e.g., fulltime enlistment vs. weekend service) that could significantly impact the magnitude of the “veteran effect.” Future research should therefore supplement survey data with administrative data to corroborate pieces of information.
Second, we did not have information on service-specific characteristics such a branch of service, cohort-era, or combat experience. These are of potential theoretical importance and future research should incorporate measures where feasible, with a few caveats. For instance, studies indicate that the effects of combat experience on maladjustment are nuanced. Contrary to popular belief and depictions, numerous service members appear to actually benefit physically from having served in warzones and experiencing combat (e.g., the “healthy warrior/soldier effect”; Kang et al., 2015). By the same token, it is not theoretically clear as to whether (or why) enlistment in different branches would explain variation across our outcomes of interest. In fact, one might expect null differences between groups, assuming the effects of basic military training and self-selection are the primary drivers of the “veteran effect.” To this end, the recent work by Logan and colleagues (2022, pg. 17) suggests that future studies “…consider the prospect that, with few exceptions, military veterans are a homogenous group regarding service-specific factors”—a pattern also observed when looking at incarcerated military veterans (Brooke, 2018).
Third, our sample consisted primarily of white men. It is therefore unclear as to whether the effects of military service on burnout hold for employees belonging to other racial/ethnic groups, about whom we have limited information in the current study (Armstrong et al., 2015; Schaufeli & Peters, 2000). This is an especially important issue considering that the military is one of the most racially diverse workplaces in the country and is witnessing an increase in the number of both Hispanic and female recruits (Daniel et al., 2022; Laff, 2020; Vespa, 2020). With respect to the latter demographic, research suggests that female soldiers exhibit higher rates of PTSD relative to males (Street et al., 2009), the prevalence of which could impact the likelihood of experiencing adverse outcomes.
Fourth, although we extended the research of Logan and colleagues (2022) by examining staff experiences in a different state (Utah vs. Kentucky), we are bound by the same limitation of generalization and cannot account for the possibility of geographic differences across states. This is particularly important considering that correctional and policing agencies across the country command different budgets and are unequally affected by the staffing crisis. Future research should, at minimum, aim to continue this line of inquiry in other states, particularly those with the largest correctional populations. Where feasible, scholars should also attempt to collect nationally representative samples to increase generalizability. Fourth, our study was cross-sectional in nature. Additional inquiries into this area would benefit from longitudinal analyses to assess the differential impact of military service on burnout and other occupational metrics over time.
Fifth, although we compared the effects of prior military service on burnout between corrections and police officers, it is important to acknowledge the differences in standards and recruiting across these agencies—and how this variation could serve as a potential confounder in future research. For example, corrections personnel are traditionally “screened out” of positions while law enforcement officers are “screened in.” That is, in screening procedures, correctional agencies are trying to identify who not to hire whereas police agencies are trying to identify the best candidates in the pool. To this end, policing candidates who are disqualified during the interview process or who do not meet minimum requirements oftentimes may seek out a career in corrections instead, where standards may be less rigorous, and some research has suggested that candidates apply because they lack other job alternatives (Schlosser et al., 2010; see also Foley et al., 2008). As such, any future research on the “veteran effect” in correctional employees (and those employed by the criminal justice system writ large), should consider recruiting standards across agencies, as the criteria for each position could create a funneling effect that influences the results.
Sixth, cross-sectional designs such as the one used here may be statistically underpowered, resulting in higher odds of a Type II (false negative) error. Finally, it is important to note that although we found veterans were less likely to report emotional exhaustion, we observed no differences between groups with respect to depersonalization or overall burnout. Given the established links between depersonalization among staff and a litany of negative prison-based outcomes (e.g., Pane, 2016), it is important that future research, training, and interventions specifically target this problem.
As the staffing crises in corrections and policing continues, it will become increasingly important for administrators to develop approaches that balance the needs of employees, offenders, and the public writ large. Recruiting and hiring military veterans may prove to be a fruitful strategy. However, further study and empirical validation is warranted before adopting these policies wholesale.
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Maslach Burnout Inventory – Scale Items
Our decision to utilize a smaller number of items drawn from the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) was guided by the need to manage questionnaire length and prevent survey fatigue, which can lead to a decline in data quality. This is a common trait among research using the MBI, because the full 22-item scale is considered unwieldy in many environments. When forming the latent sub-constructs of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, we carefully selected items that best reflected each construct's theoretical underpinnings. The high reliability indices (α = .85 for burnout and emotional exhaustion, α = 0.75 for depersonalization) suggest that these subsets of items can effectively and reliably measure the respective constructs.
Researchers have validated one-item burnout responses (Rohland et al., 2004); however it is more common for burnout researchers in the law enforcement context to use three to four items which best reflect the construct of interest. For example, our preferred constructs (see Table A1 below) follow work by authors who specifically examine emotional exhaustion and depersonalization among law enforcement samples (Adams & Mastracci, 2019; McCarty et al., 2019). It would be helpful for there to be a single accepted reduced-item scale for researchers to turn to consistently. However, the unfortunate reality is that the corrections burnout literature—the vast majority of which uses some version of the MBI to create measures of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (i.e., “burnout”)—lacks such a consistent scale (for coverage, see Lambert et al., 2015). Our decisions regarding scalar items are well within the norm for scholarly work in this area, enhancing the generalizability of the findings. However, we note that cross-cultural application of the burnout constructs has been questioned (Mastracci & Adams, 2019), and so extra caution is called for before attempting to apply these results outside of the US/western corrections context.
Further, reviewers raise the issue of whether there might be differential endorsement on the MBI across sex and race categories. In other words, women may be more likely to endorse symptoms of burnout compared to men, and the experience of burnout may be stigmatized or present differently across race. To investigate this possibility, in Table A1.2 below we report the internal validity (Chronbach’s alpha) for the emotional exhaustion and depersonalization measures, broken down by sex (male/female) and race (white/nonwhite). The raw imbalance in race categories suggests against a more granular approach to race in this data. As shown in the tabular results, men and women, and white and nonwhite respondents, while varying in baseline rates, have nearly identical alphas across both measures. This result suggests that, at least among this respondent sample, there is unlikely to be highly variable differences in construct validity across these demographic groups.
Scale Item Wording
Burnout (all seven items) α = .85
Emotional Exhaustion (α = .85)
Working with people all day is really a strain for me.
I leave work feeling emotionally exhausted.
I feel "used up" at the end of the workday.
When I start my shift, I already feel emotionally exhausted.
Depersonalization (α = .75)
Working in this job has hardened me emotionally.
I’ve become more callous toward people since I started working in law enforcement.
People I deal with at work blame me for some of their problems.
Cronbach Alphas by Group
Descriptive Statistics by Sworn Status
Diff. in Means
Burnout Standardized Effects
Emotional Exhaustion Standardized Effects
Depersonalization Standardized Effects