Prison Warden Stress and Job Performance Research Paper

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While many studies examine factors relating to job satisfaction and job stress of correctional officers and correctional treatment staff, the scholarly literature on job satisfaction and job stress of wardens is scarce. Of the studies conducted, many determinants have been found to impact job satisfaction and job stress of wardens, such as individual-level attributes (e.g., age, race, gender, educational level, and tenure status) and work environment/organizational features (e.g., career experiences, organizational conditions, nature of the work role, correctional approaches, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, organizational justice, organizational structure, social support, work-family conflict, and job stress). This research paper provides an examination of the determinants of job satisfaction and job stress of correctional officers as well as wardens. It also examines the impact that different leadership styles could have on job satisfaction and job stress.


Despite substantial growth of the United States correctional system, limited research exists on the leaders who are responsible for the effective and efficient functioning of correctional organizations. Typically, prison wardens are responsible for a wide array of tasks and must answer to constituencies both internal and external to their correctional facility. While ensuring the priority of a safe and secure prison environment for both staff and inmates, wardens must effectively and efficiently respond to macrolevel budget and legislative issues, human resource and staffing issues, facility functioning, as well as concerns of inmates and their families (Ruddell and Norris 2008). To be successful in these and other efforts, wardens must be effective leaders who can successfully convey and inspire their staff with a shared vision for their organization (Heaton and Atherton 2008) without suffering negative affect from intensive job tasks. Yet, the dynamic prison environment presents daily challenges for wardens as many wardens perceive that they are insufficiently prepared (McCampbell 2002).

Insight into promising management practices for prison wardens has been gained in a number of areas including overcrowding, prison gangs, inmate amenities, physical location of the warden’s office, and managerial attitudes. Less attention has been paid to the successful functioning of prison wardens insofar as identifying individual or organizational attributes related to a positive work experience and job-related stress (Cullen et al. 1993; Flanagan et al. 1996).

Only in related literature that has assessed correctional officers have researchers examined antecedents of job stress and related coping mechanisms. Job stress has been typically defined in the job stress literature as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker” (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 1999, p. 6). Stress typically results from exposure to stressors that develop as a result of the workplace and associated duties (Cullen et al. 1985; Lambert 2004). Experiencing high levels of stress especially in a prolonged or regular manner can have damaging outcomes on an individual. These negative outcomes can include poor job performance as well as increased levels of social problems, burnout, divorce, mental health problems, and illness (Griffin et al. 2010; Salami et al. 2010).

Given the importance of prison wardens in the everyday functioning of correctional organizations, a warden’s inevitable exposure to job stress may have a damaging effect on both the individual as well as the organization (Hom and Griffeth 1995; Lambert et al. 2007). Negative work experiences such as job stress can result in higher levels of turnover (Shaw 2011) which can be especially concerning when it encompasses leaders of an organization. As Shaw (2011) and others have noted, both negative proximal (e.g., safety, productivity, efficiency) and distal (e.g., organizational performance) impacts of job stress could cause eventual organizational disruption. Consequently, it is important for researchers to consider correlates of prison warden job stress given the significant level of organizational capital held by a person in this position as well as coping mechanisms that may offset job stress.

As noted earlier, the consequences of job stress can be damaging to both an individual employee and the correctional organization as a whole (Lambert et al. 2007). While extensive research in this arena has been conducted in other occupational fields, within corrections the job stress literature has primarily focused on custodial staff, such as correctional or detention officers and to a limited extent noncustodial, correctional treatment staff (see Armstrong and Griffin 2004). Insufficient attention has been paid to prison wardens and job stress, with a very limited literature that has focused on job satisfaction (Cullen et al. 1993; Flanagan et al. 1996). Existing studies have demonstrated that correctional officers report high levels of job stress due in part to individual perceptions of their work environment, which is contemporaneously influenced by their personal characteristics (Mitchell et al. 2001). Given the demanding responsibilities of prison wardens, including maintaining a safe and secure prison environment, managing staff resources, disciplinary incidents and grievance processes, fiscal constraints, upholding public relations, and maintaining professionalism (Ruddell and Norris 2008), it is reasonable to anticipate high levels of job stress exists among prison wardens.

Job stress levels among prison wardens are a unique concern because everyday operations of prisons and their environment could be negatively affected by a warden who experiences significant job stress. If high job stress levels are the norm, prison wardens may be unduly exposed to higher risks of poor decision making, job performance, or turnover (Hulsheger et al. 2010). While turnover is not always a drawback (i.e., some degree of staff turnover can be healthy), when it occurs during a period of organizational change or fiscal conservation, it can be internally damaging to an organization. Alternatively, it could be the case that prison wardens may not experience significant job stress due to unique characteristics of that individual or adaptive coping methods successfully employed. Attrition of those correctional staff may have already occurred for individuals that perceive significant job stress or fail to successfully cope with existing stress, or at minimum those individuals have not successfully navigated and promoted through the correctional system. Stated another way, individuals who perceive the correctional environment to be stressful may not seek or receive career advancement opportunities or be “washed out” at an earlier career point prior to appointment as a warden. Thus, a determination of the level of prison warden job stress, as well as its corollary conditions, is important and significantly understudied.

Correlates Of Correctional Officer Job Stress

Factors previously examined in the correctional officer job stress literature have included individual-level attributes (e.g., gender, race, age, education level, tenure status, and position) as well as organizational or workplace characteristics (e.g., organizational justice, conditions of confinement, work roles, organizational and co-worker support, quality of supervision) (see Armstrong and Griffin 2004; Cullen et al. 1985, 1993; Flanagan et al. 1996; Hepburn and Knepper 1993; Lambert 2004; Lambert et al. 2006a, b, 2007; Mitchell et al. 2004; Triplett et al. 1999). While some studies have concurrently examined job stress and job satisfaction (Lambert et al. 2006a, 2007), the distinct influence of the two concepts has been difficult to disentangle.

Within the correctional officer job stress literature, a number of inconsistencies in determining individual attributes that correlate with job stress persist. Specifically, the racial background of an officer has been found to both influence as well as be unrelated to correctional officer perceptions of job stress. For example, Lambert et al. (2007) found correctional officers who were White reported significantly higher job stress (see also Cullen et al. 1985), yet Armstrong and Griffin (2004) found no significant relationship between officer race and job stress (see also Lambert et al. 2010). Gender has been a more consistent indicator of job stress, albeit an interactive effect that is influenced by characteristics of the prison environment. Specifically, female officers as compared to male officers have tended to report significantly more job stress (Armstrong and Griffin 2004; Lambert et al. 2007; Cullen et al. 1985). Regarding gender, Triplett and colleagues (1999) found significant interactive effects between gender and various aspects of the work environment. For example, female correctional officers experienced greater work-home conflict, higher levels of contact with prisoners, and an increased perception of job dangerousness. In turn, these factors were positively correlated with job stress. In comparison, with male officers factors such as tenure, quantitative work overload, and perceived job dangerousness were related to higher levels of job stress.

Interestingly, while officers with greater tenure or “time on the job” have been found to also have higher levels of job stress (Armstrong and Griffin 2004; Lambert et al. 2007; Cullen et al. 1985), beyond number of years of correctional experience, a more textured assessment of prior experience has not been explored. Prior literature has argued that important differences in job stress may exist as well as distinct perspectives between custodial and treatment staff (see Armstrong and Griffin 2004), and these may play a role in how a person experiences subsequent positions. Prison wardens may promote from either type of experiential background; thus, type of prior experience is an important extension in the measurement of the tenure variable.

In addition to individual characteristics, the attributes of the correctional environment have been found to influence correctional officer stress (Mitchell et al. 2004). Studies have found that officers who perceived their job as “dangerous” (Armstrong and Griffin 2004; Cullen et al. 1985; Triplett et al. 1999) or were employed at a higher security level prison (Cullen et al. 1985) also perceived higher levels of job stress. These types of facility effects may extend to the composition of the inmates in a facility in terms of the prison being a single gender or co-ed facility as additional security concerns are presented or minimized as a result.

In contrast to attributes associated with higher levels of job stress, researchers have also advanced an understanding of protective factors thought to be related to lower levels of correctional officer job stress. To date, researchers have studied various forms of social support including co-worker or peer support hypothesized to decrease job stress. Results have not demonstrated a clear linkage such that some studies have found supervisory and family support to be negatively correlated with work stress, while peer support was positively correlated with job stress (Cullen et al. 1985). Other studies have found that co-worker or peer support reduced job stress (Armstrong and Griffin 2004).

While the perspective and daily routines of prison wardens differ from a typical custodial correctional officer, the work environment itself remains the same. That is, the prison warden remains exposed to the same environmental factors of the correctional facility as the correctional officers including the prison’s size, custody level of the population held, and gender of the inmates (i.e., male, female, or co-ed population); therefore, these organizational attributes may influence a prison warden, but the warden’s unique perspective as well as additional factors should be considered.

Transformational Leadership As A Protective Factor Against Job Stress

Research has consistently found that correctional officers who perceived the supervision they receive to be of high quality also tended to report lower levels of job stress (Armstrong and Griffin 2004; Cullen et al. 1985; Waters 1999). Despite the importance of supervision quality from the perspective of the correctional officer, good quality leadership is not necessarily an innate attribute of all prison wardens. According to Heaton and Atherton (2008), “becoming a leader in any organization usually involves a process of years of personal and professional development” (p. 14). Moreover, Heaton and Atherton (2008) suggested that a successful leader must understand the challenges confronting staff, maintain good relationships with co-workers, have a balanced life and good personal health, be energetic, have an appropriate emotional outlet, effectively communicate the purpose of the correctional organization to stakeholders, be a mediator, clearly articulate performance expectations, and be invested in their relationships with staff members. What type of leadership style might encompass such positive attributes? The organizational literature on leadership suggests a transformational leader exhibits similar characteristics.

Transformational leaders are individuals who aim to increase their organization’s awareness of appropriate tasks and further motivate organization members to perform beyond basic expectations (Bass 1985). A growing body of research on transformational leadership supports the suggestion that a transformational leadership style has a direct, positive impact on performance outcomes and the behavior or experiences of subordinates (Arnold et al. 2007). For example, Mullen et al. (2011) examined transformational leadership as compared to an alternative form of passive or uninvolved leadership, which “are generally considered to be the most ineffective styles of leadership” (p. 42). Their results demonstrated that subordinates of safety managers who consistently demonstrated transformational leadership skills engaged in greater levels of safety compliance and safety participation. Additionally, using an experimental design Bono and Ilies (2006) found that “charismatic leaders enable their followers to experience positive emotions” (p. 331). Sosik and Godshalk (2000) specifically found that transformational leadership led to less job stress as a result of the increase mentoring received by subordinates. Thus, from existing literature, it appears as if transformational leadership can affect both individual well-being of subordinates in the organization as well as performance outcomes. This twofold effect of transformational leadership on performance outcomes as well as individuals was evident in Chin’s (2007) meta-analysis of 28 independent studies of transformational school leadership. In the study, Chin examined the effects of transformational leadership on teachers finding higher levels of transformational leadership coincided with higher rates of teacher job satisfaction, school effectiveness as perceived by the teachers, and student achievement.

While the literature on the direct effects of exhibiting transformational leadership on subordinates is well researched, the relationship between transformational leadership skills and the leader’s well-being is less clear. In the limited existing research, one study by Ram and Prebhakar (2010) found that within a sample of managers from the telecom industry, the greater the extent to which managers reported having transformational leadership skills, the lower levels of reported job stress. Yet, the mechanism through which this reduction in job stress is achieved is not explained. Arguably those who engage in a transformational leadership style experience more successful organizational functioning overall (i.e., a reduced role stressor) and potentially more support from their subordinates, thereby individually reporting lower levels of job stress. As a first step, however, it must be first considered whether transformational leadership has significant relationship with job stress within a prison warden population.


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