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How Can I Manage Mandatory Overtime and a Healthy Work-Life Balance?

When understaffed jails and prisons enforce mandatory overtime, it’s easy for staff to start thinking that their job is their life. Without intentionally working towards a healthy work-life balance, correctional staff can become prisoners of the same system as the inmates.
Mark Cowley
Mark Cowley
Kenzie Koch | Marketing Specialist

We all know that there is a current nationwide influx of shortages right now, including a shortage of staffing across almost every industry. Companies all over the country are struggling to retain employees and are trying to find ways to compensate for the work they are lagging behind in. The short-staffing crisis in corrections, specifically, has been addressed by enforcing mandatory holdovers (overtime). When understaffed jails and prisons enforce mandatory holdovers or call-back-to-cover shifts, there is a point where staff can become delusional and start to believe that their job is their life as they spend more time with inmates than their own families. This blog aims to share tips on how to consciously separate the “work mindset” vs. the “personal life mindset” and find the healthiest work-life balance possible.

The Repercussions of Overtime Work

Trying to make up for current staffing shortages, agencies put pressure on their staff by enforcing holdovers and mandatory call-back days which directly impacts the mental state of every officer. When this overtime rule was put into place, it wasn’t taken into account that the individuals working the required overtime shifts are the same individuals who just completed a shift prior to starting their overtime. Thus, they didn’t have adequate time between their shifts to decompress, recharge, and mentally prepare themselves for their next shift of work. 

We’ve all had those days where we show up to work feeling like a zombie. Whether you didn’t get satisfactory sleep or your coffee wasn’t strong enough, working while exhausted drains you that much more and disrupts your circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that controls your sleep-wake cycle (which is a big no-no for correctional staff). Everyone who works in corrections knows that the job requires full attention on completing tasks in order to keep the safety and security of the facility intact. Any officer who is working behind the walls but isn't 100% focused on their assigned duties puts themselves and the rest of the facility at risk. This negligence could result in short-cutting procedures, incomplete tasks, and inaccurately reporting what they did when they, in fact, did not. Working on mental overdrive is a dangerous game to play. 

Working 12-hour shifts can’t be compared to the common 9-5 job that works 8 hours on average. That time comparison alone is a 4-hour difference that is spent off-duty and recharging for the next shift. These 4 hours can result in missing dinner with your family. Or sleeping while the kids are getting ready for the school bus. Overlooked birthday celebrations. Missed t-ball games. Forgotten anniversaries. And so much more. Thus, the time that officers have off work needs to be utilized wisely. Whether that’s catching up on sleep or connecting with loved ones, it gives the phrase “time is precious” a whole new meaning.

Think “Separation of Church and State”

Having a work-life balance is one of the utmost keys to this profession. You need to be mindful enough to shut off your work mindset and tune into your personal life. Blending these two sectors doesn’t allow you to have a solid framework for a work-life balance. Even so, it isn’t that simple to just “tune out” of work mode and focus on what’s happening at home. Assuming the transition between work and going home is simply that easy is far, far off. For example, you’d assume that an officer who just finished a 12-hour shift would look forward to going home and putting their feet up and watching the football game until they peacefully doze off. What you forgot to assume was how their shift was. Those who don’t work every day in corrections tend to forget what officers endure while on their shift. Let’s assume the same officer had a hell of a day at work. He witnessed a gang-rivalry fight break out between ten different inmates who beat each other until the rec room floor was flooded in red and later watched one of the inmates carried out in a body bag. Do you think this officer is still looking forward to going home and watching football? Probably not. And do you blame him/her? How is it possible to go from one extreme to the next in a matter of a couple of hours? It’s nearly impossible. One cannot simply flip a switch from being a professional correctional officer to being an average member of the community. “Finding the balance” between the two is like comparing the difference between Earth and Mars; two different worlds. 

Think of the concept behind the “separation of church and state.” It's a philosophical idea of distancing the relationship between two parties that consistently overlap but shouldn’t. When you think of all the time spent within the walls working with inmates, the transition from work to home can be staggeringly different. To leave the locked confines of your jail or prison where you serve as a professional staff member and go home where you serve as a husband, wife, father, mother, or friend, you experience completely different environments. You’ve probably been given the slap of a reminder, “You’re not at work” at home a handful of times from your family or friends. You are humbled back into your role of being who you were before you entered corrections and remember that when you signed up to take the job, your family and friends didn’t sign up to have you come home and still act as if you’re on shift.  

Be Intentional About the Balance

To be fully invested in your job is a phenomenal asset to bring to the table, professionally speaking. However, if you consider yourself to be fully invested in your job but catch yourself using it as an excuse to miss out on social events in your personal life, consider taking a step back to think about your priorities. Being fully invested in your job doesn’t mean that you have a pass to miss out on family gatherings or outings with friends. If you decide to re-invest yourself in your personal life, it will take some mental testing. By creating a deliberate differentiation between work and your personal life, you will be forced to make decisions surrounding what is important to you and how you can make enough time to fit in all those crucial factors. 

For instance, if your mandatory overtime hours happen to fall during the time of your kid’s soccer game, you will need to find a way to independently focus your attention on each of these important pieces. If you have a healthy balance between your work life and personal life, you’ll know that without a doubt you will spend your 15-minute break FaceTiming or video-chatting with your son to wish him luck or ask how the game went. Being intentional about the things that are important to you isn’t too difficult if you can find an appropriate balance to fit it all in. Using that 15-minute gap of time to spend with your loved ones is a prime example of how to find a balance between work and your personal life. After all, talking over a screen is better than not talking at all.

If spending time with family or friends isn’t something that you see yourself doing during your time off work, consider how to get involved in your community. With spending so much time with inmates, it’s easy to create a warped view of the community you serve. Remember to stay connected with people you trust in your community and recall the positive things that balance out your perspective. There are many ways to be involved with your community, you just need to find something that fits your interests. For some, it's coaching a youth football team, being a scout club leader, volunteering at the neighborhood garden, participating in mentorship programs, meeting with a group at the local church, and so much more. In case you’re thinking, “I already spend my working hours serving the community, isn’t that enough?” then look at it from the perspective of furthering your career. Proving that you have work or volunteer experience in your community or connections with community leaders on your resume looks great in all fields of law enforcement. Whether working in your community sounds like something you’d entertain or not, keep in mind that it has helped other correctional staff recharge their batteries before starting their next shift. 

We stand with those who struggle with grasping the reasoning behind enforced mandatory overtime. We also stand with the facilities that are struggling to retain employees. We stand with everyone who works in corrections because our team (professionals with 200+ of combined corrections experience) understands the hardships this profession brings. We know that staff work with the same inmates day in and day out and we understand that seeing the same things gets old. We empathize with staff as we recognize that it’s difficult to want to stay with a job that takes time away from your family and loved ones. We hope this blog was helpful in providing examples of how to consciously separate the “work mindset” vs. the “personal life mindset” and find the healthiest work-life balance possible because, without it, correctional staff become prisoners of the same system they are working to protect.

Mark Cowley is the Director of JailOps at GUARDIAN RFID and uses his 34 years of corrections experience to help jail staff and administrators overcome the challenges of operating and working in a correctional environment.