Out-a-whack with Stress? Restoring Boundaries in Work and Life
I. The Problem: Too Much Work, Not Enough Life
Sometimes offenders, anticipating their release from a long prison term, may wonder: Can there be life after prison? I have sometimes wondered, in the midst of the urgent demands of my vocation: Can there be life after work?
We live in a modern age of increasing federal, state and agency bureaucratic rules and regulations which tax our time, energy and patience. The reams of compliance paperwork involved in our staff chaplaincy jobs seem at times to be overwhelming. At the same time most of the states in the United States are experiencing budgetary shortfalls, and are considering—or implementing—cuts in their payrolls. So, it seems we have: more work to do, fewer resources with which to do it.
I remember well the Reduction in Force (RIF) cutbacks, passed by our state legislature in 2003. Our Chaplaincy staff, in a move now largely seen as counterproductive and damaging to our rehabilitative goals for offenders, was cut by 40% in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. (Thankfully, staff chaplain positions have been restored in the years since 2003.) In a maximum security prison of 2,500 where we struggled with three staff chaplains, after the RIF we suddenly had only one staff chaplain (me). I struggled even more with the demands of my work, but felt hopeless to do much about it.
One day I asked my older and wiser prison chaplaincy mentor, Emmett Solomon, about what to do with my feelings of not having enough time to do what I needed to do. He said, “Vance, you didn’t ask for this situation. It came to you. Do the best you can, and go home. What you don’t get done today will be there tomorrow. And also, be sure to take care of yourself.” Those words were liberating for me. I realized I am only one person, not three, and I should not be trying to do the work of three chaplains. And, at other times my mentor has talked about the invaluable assistance of volunteers.
I am a borderline workaholic (some of my friends would take the “borderline” out of that), so work comes easily for me. But I found myself enjoying my prison chaplaincy ministry less, and I discovered myself—instead of responding in a pastoral manner to offender requests and needs—sometimes impatiently snapping at them in ways I hadn’t experienced before.
Somehow I was aware of what was happening, and God—for starters—led me to add a word to my daily prayers. I had been asking for strength and wisdom in my work. Now, the Almighty impressed upon me: “Add grace to that. Ask me for strength, wisdom and grace in your daily work.” I did, and it helped. But I had a problem, and adding a good word to my prayers was only the beginning of a solution.
I also realized that I was working in a toxic environment, not conducive to stress relief but one which contributed to compounding my stress. Correctional officers had it even worse than I did: Whereas I could get some relief in my air conditioned office, most correctional officers worked eight to twelve hours a day, standing on concrete floors in spaces with no air conditioning in the stifling Texas heat, dealing with anti-social convicted felons all day. What a recipe not just for normal stress but for the worst sorts of distress!
I did some research on the subject, and found that correctional and law enforcement officers have some of the highest rates of work-related stress in any vocation, including physical and mental health issues, burnout, personal, marital and family dysfunction and disintegration, and early disability retirement.1
II. Outlines of a Many-faced Solution
So, what could I do? Once I acknowledged and owned my boundary issues between legitimate work and the rest of my life, I could begin to think about a solution. My solution was multifaceted because I came to believe there is an array of actions I could take which would help me. Here are eleven which may help you too.
- The Sabbath principle: Take a day of rest. Mark Buchanan’s book, “The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath” (2006),2 has been helpful to me. The basic idea is: Do not create on the Sabbath. Do not produce; instead, take a rest, and receive some renewal, by enjoying the beauty of creation, and the fruit of your labor. Since I am not Jewish, this principle has been difficult for me to learn, and I am still learning, but I list it first because there is a great truth here that I had long missed.
- Intentional Family Time. If you stay busy most of the time, as I do, put some time in your schedule to pay special attention to your wife, kids, or significant other(s). Healthy relationships are developed by spending time with each other. If I do not plan it, my days are spent, and I have not interacted much with my wife. So, sit down daily and have a conversation. Mainly listen. Do not do all the talking.
Also, have a regular date night when you do something special, away from your cell phone, your computer and your other communications devices which keep you from communicating with the most important person(s) in your life. Practicing this intentional time of fellowship with your loved ones will refresh and renew you.
- Retreat. Get out of town by going on a spiritual retreat. I’ve always enjoyed going on a retreat with clergy of my own denomination, but I also recommend going on a retreat with persons outside of your particular faith community. For me it was eye-opening to see others who appeared to be just as spiritual as I was who were not in my group. I always found I could benefit from most presenters—or simply from my interpersonal relating—at such retreats by utilizing the principle: Eat the fish and spit out the bones. I do not have all the theological or other knowledge in the world, so it has always been refreshing to me to interact with others.
- Vacation. Go on a vacation—even a short one. It need not be a “spiritual” vacation. Just get out of town—near or far—and enjoy God’s creation. Do what you like to do, and do what you can afford to do. Budget some money for it—and it need not be a huge amount. Visit family if you like to do that. Visit the state and national parks if you like to do that. If you live in a rural area, go to a city. If you live in the city, go sightseeing in the country. Change the scenery in your life. It’s refreshing!
- Denominational Days Off. My state agency gives chaplains five Denominational Days off annually for the purpose of going to denominational events—in my faith group or another—which will enhance my spiritual life. I use the time to maintain a relationship (besides my local house of worship) with the regional and national manifestations of my denomination. I normally try to avoid any dull or boring experiences and go to the continuing education or pastoral growth events which may be interesting to me. It’s another way to get out of town, change the atmosphere, have some fellowship and get refreshed.
- Have a mentor, or two or three. Sometimes I have questions, concerns, problems or situations arise about which I need another opinion or an outside perspective. I mentioned one mentor earlier, but I have others—spiritually mature people who may also be prayer partners or spiritual directors—as I journey through the ups and downs of life. Sometimes, as I have approached a big decision, I have asked my fellow sojourners to pray for me. They have, and I have been blessed by their prayers. Sometimes, at my request, they respond to my questions with their honest thoughts. They are always a benefit to my understanding.
- Have a Support Group. I am a practicing member of a men’s spiritual support group which meets regularly for sharing and prayer. This particular group is part of the Three-day movement associated with Cursillo, Walk to Emmaus, Tres Dias, Kairos, and other Three-day groups. The group is a help to me in my journey. Other groups are AA, NA, lectionary groups of clergy, or other fellowships. Go with what helps you.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is renewing, refreshing, and rejuvenating, but many Americans do not get enough. Normally, without 6-8 hours of nightly sleep, one will be cranky, sleepy, irritable, and may have heart or other health problems. Get your rest, through sleep. Also, I’ve never done afternoon naps because of my work, but I recommend them if you can do them. In many countries (Spain comes to mind), many shops close at about 3:00 p.m. and open again at 7:00 p.m. The reason? Siesta time!
- Exercise. There are few things better than walking and strength-building exercises (some prefer jogging, swimming or other moderate exercise) for cutting down on your stress, not to mention your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and other health-related issues. I personally like to do moderate, as opposed to strenuous, exercise, but strenuous exercise is good for those who enjoy it. One should do what you feel good about continuing to do, and not giving up on it. Something is better than nothing.
- Professional Meetings. I have for the past 21 years attended the semi-annual national meetings of the American Correctional Association and (simultaneously) the American Correctional Chaplains Association. Why? The fellowship, formalized continuing education in workshops, and participation in our profession’s leadership has always been challenging and renewing for me. Attending the meetings can be expensive, but, even when I had much less income than I have now, I went. I always found ways to make the meetings work on a fairly low budget, since most of the time my agency did not pay my way. The experiences I’ve had in these efforts have been invaluable. I’m glad I went, and I recommend it.
- Private Prayer, Meditation and Congregational Worship. For me, prayer and meditation on Scripture has been a life-long practice and connection with the divine. I pray for guidance, wisdom and strength. If I have a problem, I pray about it. I meditate on it. Then, after due consultation with spiritual advisors or colleagues, I act with confidence. My God has been my help for many years. I also find great renewal and refreshment in free-world congregational worship. Chaplains sometimes neglect or avoid this, saying they worship in their institutions. That is fine, but I believe it is spiritually beneficial also to worship outside your institution in a healthy faith community, away from the normal toxins of prison life.
Recognizing and practicing boundaries between our professional work life and our life outside of work is necessary to having a healthy and well-rounded life, free of unnecessary stress. There is life outside of work. If you do not have one, I commend it to you and I encourage you: Go get it.
1See the following articles on stress-related issues in correctional settings:
Finn, Peter. “Addressing Correctional Officer Stress: Programs and Strategies.” U. S. Department of Justice: National Institute of Justice. December 2012.
Morgan, Robert D., Van Haveren, Richard A., Pearson, Christy A. “Correctional Officer Burnout.” Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 29, #2. April 2002.
ToersBijns, Carl. “Stress, the Silent Killer.” Corrections.com. December 17, 2012. 2Buchanan, Mark. The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. Thomas Nelson, 2006.