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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Can probation staff maintain a work-life balance?

Research from Sheffield Hallam on the work-family balance of being a modern probation officer.

Managing spillover

One of last year’s most popular posts was on the relentless impact for National Probation Service staff of working solely with high risk offenders. Today’s post is based on another article from the same study which involved qualitative interviews with 18 NPS staff: Spillover and work–family conflict in probation practice: Managing the boundary between work and home life by the same three Sheffield Hallam Researchers — Chalen Westaby, Jake Phillips & Andrew Fowler.

The article explores the causes and ramifications of the spillage that occurs between probation practitioners’ work and private lives. It’s a fascinating read in which practitioners describe the way in which being a probation officer had given them a ‘skewed view’ of the world, and that
they struggled to know how or whether to act on the information they had obtained through being a probation officer. Importantly, the possession of such information had led them to change their parenting practices in ways that they were not confident were appropriate.

Findings

The article is rooted in the concept of spillover theory which maintains that despite the physical and temporal boundaries that exist between work and family, behaviours and emotions from one domain spill over to the other. Intriguingly, the researchers assert that spillover can occur from work-to-family contributing to Work-Family conflict and from family-to-work contributing to Family-Work conflict.

A number of key issues emerged from the study which are summarised briefly below.

Desensitisation

A number of probation officers commented on how they had become desensitised by having to deal with serious sexual and/or violent offences on a daily basis. Although this desensitisation functioned as an important self-protection technique it also led to officers’ partners commenting on how they had become a “harder person.”

Taking work home

In addition to the predictable consequences of worrying about key risk management decisions at home (frequently in the middle of the night), the research also draws attention to the fact that probation officers who work locally can frequently bump into the offenders they manage while shopping or on a night-out; often a mutually uncomfortable encounter.

The article includes an example of a probation officer bumping into a service user in the street shortly after initiating breach proceedings:

We came across one of my customers and he wanted to knock me head off and, you know, he was drunk and I’d breached him . . . and then he saw me and the wife out in town and I just went at him . . . ‘who the hell do you think you are to bring this up in front of my  wife? This is my wife bah-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra [angry sound]’ and she said, ‘God, you were like a Pitbull’. (PO21)

Photo by Lisa Zoe on Unsplash

Altruistic imaginings

A very different example of spillover is a phenomenon the researchers have christened “altruistic imaginings” in which probation officers felt they wanted to help their clients in material ways but that these were also inappropriate and unprofessional:

Am I doing enough? . . . it’s simple things innit, do you know, I’ve got a spare jacket I could give offenders. I’ve got food. I’ve got things  that I know they could do with but I can’t give them it. (PO10)

The researchers note that although these imaginings made probation staff feel uncomfortable and guilty, they also had a role in allowing staff to reinforce professional boundaries and use those boundaries to rationalise the detachment required when working with people living in difficult circumstances. Another example included the desire to invite an isolated service user home for Christmas dinner:

I think it’s very healthy to have all these feelings . . . not necessarily to act upon them but . . . for one moment to think, ‘What can I do to make sure he’s not on his own on Christmas day? Well – ’ and then ‘well it’s not my responsibility’. (PO7)

Darker imaginings

The researchers explore the notion of probation as “dirty work”, the academic concept that practitioners felt tainted by society as a result of marshalling the boundary between non-offending and offending communities. Dirty work is thought to result in workers feeling physically, morally or socially tainted by society, but the researchers also suggest that probation work can result in practitioners having a skewed view of society which, in turn, affects the way they lead their private lives. Everyday language for this is probation staff who describe themselves as being “changed by the job”:

I’m looking at people differently . . . really I just question people’s motives all the time and it’s often for the worst not the best . . . I think it’s probably just a by-product of just doing this work. (PO10)

Spillover

The researchers explore how these issues and feelings spillover into non-work life. Working with child sex offenders has a powerful impact on probation staff. One study participant described giving up coaching a kids’ football team because he was uncomfortable with the fact that other parent/coaches touched the children, even though the touching was in no way inappropriate. Another had developed high levels of anxiety about his children going to the swimming pool or the fair because of concerns about the presence of paedophiles.

Conclusion

Frankly, I found this research both fascinating and unsettling. It’s a long time since I was a probation officer; I was only a fully qualified practitioner for three years with a mixed caseload at a time when the focus of the service had more of a social work than public protection ethos. Apart from the mutual embarrassment of bumping into people I was supervising in the street, I recognise few of these spillover issues.

However, the situation is clearly very different for long term NPS officers who work solely with high risk offenders. The strain on staff  is acknowledged by the NPS with all new (and, presumably, existing) staff receiving training and support in developing their own resilience in order to cope with the pressures of the job.

I can’t help wondering whether these pressures make it particularly difficult for staff to maintain the core belief that the vast majority of men and women they supervise want to move away from committing crime and be helped and supported to live more fulfilling lives. I also wonder whether the individuals supervised sometimes feel that their probation officer always thinks the worst of them.

I am mindful that many recent HMI Probation inspection reports note that the NPS is currently more effective at protecting the public than promoting desistance and wonder if the issues described in this research are part of the reason.

[Thanks for the header photo by ANDRIK LANGFIELD PETRIDES on Unsplash]

4 thoughts on “Can probation staff maintain a work-life balance?”

  1. Excelent article, however it is presumed that new staff get additional training to cope with the new intensity of work. That thought could not be further from the truth. The new officers have 15 months to learn, many newly qualified officers have never written a live PSR or Parole report. They have never had to defend themselves during an Oral Hearing and the service trys to protect them with less complex cases. Net result? The more experienced officer holds 50 or more high and very high risk cases, sex offenders and violent individuals predominate.
    You try to avoid the “spill over” but your wife or partner wants to know why you are less motivated to spend time wth your family, who or what has upset you today. Its hard to talk to friends and family about a bad day at the office when it involves the recall of a predatory rapist, its even worse when you have a gut feeling or a nagging doubt about an ultra compliant sex offender who may or may-not be truthfull about contact with his new girlfriends child. Yes spill over is very real, you never realy turn of, the fear of getting things wrong is constant and the 400 or so new trainees will not qualify quickly enough to stop this ship sinking.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment. Insight from the frontline is always very much appreciated. Hope you can find some support for dealing with such a difficult work situation, as you imply, the service can’t afford to lose any more of its experienced staff.
      Best Wishes
      Russell

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