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Prison Governor Study Puts Work Stress in the Spotlight

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The life of a prison governor can be highly stressful and can have a negative effect on both physical and mental health, according to new research.

A team of experts from the University of Lincoln, UK, conducted qualitative research on behalf of the Prison Governors Association (PGA) to explore the health and wellbeing of Prison Operational Managers and Governors.

The research involved interviewing 63 members of the PGA to assess their health and wellbeing at work, how they felt about their role, and what support was available.

Researchers found that many respondents believed there was a strong ‘macho culture’ working within the prison service, where signs of weakness could not be shown in an environment where toughness and stamina are emphasised.

Results also showed that prison governors’ felt they were expected to look after the wellbeing of their staff and prisoners, but often were not given the autonomy to do so. This led to creating the perception that staff were not trusted or supported to carry out their jobs.

When it came to accessing support, the governors questioned were supportive of the services offered, but felt that they were geared towards their staff rather than them. This was combined with a fear over confidentiality and the potential that accessing support services may have a negative effect on career progression.

Professor Karen Harrison, Professor of Law and Penal Justice at the University of Lincoln, and Co-Investigator on the study, said:

“We were conscious of the extra pressure that prison governors and operational managers were under during the Covid-19 pandemic and cognisant of the fact that this was a very under-researched area. Having contacted the Prison Governors’ Association, who agreed that the time was right to look into health and wellbeing, we approached their members and got an overwhelming response.

“From established research undertaken on prison officers, the results were unfortunately not that surprising, although perhaps how deep rooted and long lasting some of the issues were, was. While the pandemic had exacerbated some areas of concern; a macho culture, not dealing with trauma and high workloads, these existed prior to Covid-19 and continue today. We are deeply committed to working with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to try and improve the health and wellbeing of all prison workers.”

When combined, the perceived macho culture, lack of autonomy and lack of support made interviewees feel disengaged, exhausted, traumatised, and in some cases unable to go on. Many reported a complete lack of work/life balance, damaged relationships and often feeling worried, and at risk of burnout.

Looking forwards, governors wanted a recognition of their stressful work environment and greater acknowledgement of their experiences, a review of roles and workload, increased appreciation of the different roles in prisons and headquarters and more appropriate and better resourced support services.

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