‘Work is where I get a lot of my fulfilment and it brings out many positive emotions. However, it’s also very demanding. I can ride on the high of a good day for a week, but a bad day can be devastating and demoralising.’

Job: Prison Treatment Manager.
Typical hours worked: 8 ½ hour days, 32 hours.
Profile: Briony is a white woman in her mid-20s. She works within an Offender Behaviour Programmes team in a men’s prison and lives in South East England with her partner.

Career history 

Growing up, I was interested in studying crime, but I wasn’t aware of the different jobs that exist in a prison. The thing that got me into prison work was a family member of mine who taught in a prison close to where I grew up. I volunteered at the prison while working in a supermarket after university, but I fell into this work - I happened to find a department I loved which felt meaningful. Since volunteering, I’ve been a Facilitator, a temporary Treatment Manager and now a permanent, substantive Treatment Manager. 

My working day 

My team delivers programmes to prisoners that allow them to reflect on their offenses and develop their thinking skills. This prepares prisoners for release and helps reduce their reoffending. 

On an average day, I support my team through providing supervision and upskilling activities or through watching back sessions to provide feedback. I also ensure programmes are being delivered as intended. My other duties include signing off assessments, putting groups together and providing input into interdepartmental meetings.

Unfortunately, we are massively understaffed, so as well as my own job I often have to fulfil the role of a Facilitator, taking sessions with prisoners. This might involve three hours of delivery to prisoners, with an hour of debrief and taking session notes, followed by another hour of preparing the next session – it’s exhausting. 

Work-life balance 

It’s taken some learning on my part to achieve a good work-life. I’ve had to think carefully about how to be more efficient to avoid burnout. When I started, I wanted to get it all done – I was working long hours and feeling the pressure.

Now that I’ve started my master’s degree alongside working, I’ve reduced my work hours slightly, which has helped a lot. But, more importantly, I’ve changed my attitude and learned to let things go more.

I’m also helped by the fact that, practically, I have to switch off away from work. I can’t access things from home, and likewise I can’t access normal things from work. So it’s very separate. Because of the nature of the work, I hear such interesting but also horrendous things, so sometimes I need an outlet at home – someone to vent to. But generally, I switch off.

Job design 

The broad aim of my job is to positively impact society through reducing reoffending and to directly affect the lives of the prisoners we work with. The reality of it doesn’t always match our aspirations but we set out with positive intentions. By supporting the staff I manage and making sure they feel fulfilled and are able to develop, I contribute to good work in the service which all feeds back in. That’s really important to me!

While in theory I should have some autonomy over the ways and the speed at which I work, the reality is that I don’t. My line manager gives me lots of autonomy and I work to my own schedule, but as a lot of my work is standardised, guided and thoroughly planned –there’s little room for spontaneity. Nevertheless, we are afforded creativity in how we deliver sessions.

Pay and benefits 

I don’t struggle to the same extent as others, but paying bills can be worrying. With my reduction in hours due to studying coinciding with this cost-of-living crisis, I had to make a difficult choice between prioritising wellbeing and finances, and finances took the hit. I don’t regret this decision and have felt a noticeable improvement in my wellbeing, but each month when the bills come in, I do feel anxious. But I know this isn’t permanent and it’s a choice I made, so it’s easier.

Thinking about the realities of my job, I don’t feel I’m paid fairly. My rewards don’t account for the verbal abuse I get and the risk of physical assault in my role. There’s also the responsibility of our reports being used to contribute to decisions on whether or not prisoners are released. These are huge, life-changing decisions and the weight of our role in these is not reflected in what I get paid. And it’s not just my job, this is the whole prison service. Add to that the pace and demands of the job, and it’s no surprise there’s such turnover as people don’t want to do this kind of work for nothing. 

On the other hand, the very generous pension and good maternity benefits are factors that keep me in the job. Then again, the great pension is a catch-22 – if I just had a better salary, this would balance out a smaller pension contribution from my employer.

Health and wellbeing 

Work is where I get a lot of my fulfilment and it brings out many positive emotions. However, it’s also very demanding. I can ride on the high of a good day for a week, but a bad day can be devastating and demoralising. I try to look out for myself and those I manage by regularly checking in to make sure people are switching off and giving themselves downtime. As a result, I spend a lot of my time outside of work recuperating.

This might only be true for the prison service, but the sickness policy for my job is really strict. This adds a lot of pressure – I am close to exceeding the limit for days off and I’m not a sickly person. But unless I want a warning, I can’t have a sick day in the next three months. That’s not something that sits well with me.

I’ve managed people who are genuinely unable to come into work but they risk losing their job because their absence can’t be supported. It makes me wonder, ‘If I ever get sick and need time off, am I going to lose this job that I have put so much commitment towards?’

Relationships at work 

My relationships with others at work are blurry. All the formalities are there, but the lines are unclear because there’s lots of overlapping between those I manage and those I work alongside or support (as a peer).

My relationship with my manager definitely blurs a bit. She doesn’t have peers in her role so when she needs support or needs to vent, it’s to us to help., I don’t get the detachment or the formality that I’d like in a line manager relationship. When I’ve needed support at work, I’ve used our employee forum, but if I have any issues with my wellbeing or personal life, I don’t take these to my manager. I seek support from friends and family. However, my line reports have come to me and I can offer them support. 

Having said all this, a close-knit and collaborative team has enabled us to build strong relationships. This is not a rare thing in the prison service – many teams are close and supportive of one another but as an establishment, inter-departmental support is maybe lacking. It sometimes feels like everyone is fighting their own battles and that different teams are in conflict. I wish there was more done to build relationships among different departments.

Voice and representation 

My manager is great at encouraging me to use my voice at work and raise issues. I don’t just rant to her; we constructively consider the purpose of making our voices heard. More widely in our department, people are very accepting of different perspectives and we work together to make sure our decisions are as defensible as possible. 

Thinking about the organisation as a whole, I’m less positive. It’s very inconsistent and context dependent. I’ve had instances of sharing a great idea from a prisoner to the head of the department and having no response. But I’ve also been able to bring my ideas to important conversations, even if they’ve then been dismissed. I’ve occasionally seen the benefit of using our online forums to raise my voice, but this is extremely rare. 

Reflections 

This is the only full-time job I’ve ever had, so I do question whether it’s truly fulfilling or whether I just don’t know any different. Although I love that this job feels like part of my identity, I’d also like to make sure it isn’t my entire identity, because that isn’t healthy. 

People talk about institutionalisation and how it doesn’t just happen to prisoners. I used to think, ‘what are they talking about? That’s so weird’ – and now I can’t imagine working anywhere else. 

I enjoy my job and it’s a big part of my life. But as I look ahead, I do often think quite hard about leaving the prison service and finding a role that’s as fulfilling but more financially rewarding. As an optimist, I don’t really want that, but as a realist that does feel like a sensible option.

Thinking points for people managers

  • Review whether the levels of responsibility and the design of the role are joined up with the pay and benefits structure. This would enable the organisation to determine whether there has been ‘scope creep’ within roles and allow appropriate levels of reward to be put in place.
  • Look at the overall pay and benefits package. An evaluation of this would enable the organisation and individuals to take an informed view of the reward for the role.
  • Consideration of the current sickness absence policy and benchmarks against levels of absence would be beneficial in understanding whether these are driving the right behaviours among employees. Ask whether there are other ways of supporting employees and managing sickness absence levels.
  • The nature of the work would suggest that formal supervision should be in place to enable employees at all levels to discusses cases and incidents to support their own health and wellbeing.
  • Think about how the employee forum is working – does it give every employee a voice and an opportunity to contribute to organisational strategy?

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