It’s a great program that has had a huge amount of success dealing with mental health, sleep deprivation related to shift work, issues related to diabetes and hypertension, and the stresses of the job at hand. — State Sen. Cathy Osten
A method of studying workplace conditions that has proven beneficial to Connecticut correction personnel has a new life.
For the last 14 years, researchers from UConn Health in Farmington and UConn in Storrs have been working with Department of Correction stakeholders to implement and advance intervention programs known collectively as Health Improvement Through Employee Control (HITEC).
HITEC is a flagship program funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It is based on interventions of personal health integrated with conditions of work, using a format known as Participatory Action Research, in which the workforce designs and administers interventions.
This year, HITEC is transitioning from a federally funded proof-of-concept research program to a state-funded operational activities program with UConn researchers continuing their support as a fundamental party along with labor and management.
“This is the most successful program for health in corrections in the U.S.,” says Dr. Martin Cherniack, co-director of the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) within the UConn Health Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “It’s the most advanced, widely recognized initiative involving work design to improve health and psychology of correction officer. And it’s a national model.”
Recognizing that, state Sen. Cathy Osten, who represents the 19th District in eastern Connecticut and co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, led an effort to make funding for HITEC’s next phase a line item in the current state budget. Before serving in the legislature, Osten was a Connecticut correction lieutenant.
“HITEC started when I was working for DOC. It’s a great program that has had a huge amount of success dealing with mental health, sleep deprivation related to shift work, issues related to diabetes and hypertension, and the stresses of the job at hand,” Osten says. “Corrections often gets ignored when we talk about these issues, in particular mental health, and that happens to our detriment. The men and women who work in corrections have relatively low life expectancies and high incidences of suicide and mental health issues just because of the nature of the job itself.”
Under HITEC’s participatory action approach, groups of line workers and supervisors known as design teams developed and introduced intervention programs. That’s led to successful and widely accepted interventions in areas such as new-officer mentoring, mental health, sleep hygiene, and workplace redesign for stress reduction. Customized surveys and process-evaluation tools specific to corrections informed these interventions. UConn will continue to assist with data analysis and the design and implementation of tools for assessing effectiveness.
“This program has done wonderful things, including achieving a synthesis of labor and management,” Cherniack says. “The DOC valued this program enormously, and Sen. Osten is such a strong advocate.”
At the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, correction officer Eric Tokarzewski facilitates the design team. His group surveyed the staff to identify priority areas.
“With that information, a few key improvements made at the facility were organizing and implementing a staff health and wellness fair with 16 local vendors, and putting together a report-writing room with four computers and a networked printer, so that staff can type professional reports following incidents,” Tokarzewski says. “We were also able to get the support from the administration to add two new structures for staff in the open compound, which protect the staff from the elements and offer closer proximity for responding staff when assistance is needed.”
The concept of line staff being involved in the decision-making process around staff health and well-being appealed to Tokarzewski, who says he’s hopeful the project continues and builds within the Department of Correction.
Tara Keaton, executive vice president of the Correction Supervisors Council, says HITEC has been helpful to her membership, which includes more than 500 lieutenants, captains, counselor supervisors, parole managers, and deputy wardens throughout Connecticut’s correction facilities.
“I think it’s been great, it’s made our members become more aware of things like sleep, mental health, healthy eating — all things they can benefit from just by knowing more about them,” Keaton says. “Continued investment in this program is important because it’s beneficial. It helps people’s lives, especially working in corrections. It will help our members live longer, healthier lives.”
National professional and governmental groups have been turning to HITEC and Connecticut DOC as a laboratory for developing best and most progressive practices in the country’s prisons and jails. — Dr. Martin Cherniack
As HITEC evolves from being a UConn-led research project and toward a self-sustaining DOC program with guidance from UConn researchers, the vision includes four objectives:
- Consolidate and extend the HITEC workforce health and well-being interventions to all DOC facilities.
- Aid DOC and its workforce in the development of programs and policies to promote long-term sustainability and programmatic autonomy.
- Further develop and translate the surveys, protocols, training tools, and effectiveness metrics into a usable battery requiring less academic dependence.
- Enable Connecticut DOC to maintain its current national leadership role as an innovator in corrections workforce health through participatory workforce engagement.
“National professional and governmental groups have been turning to HITEC and Connecticut DOC as a laboratory for developing best and most progressive practices in the country’s prisons and jails,” Chernaick says.