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The Mental Health Crisis Affecting UK Prison Officers: Staff Retention and Sickness Implications

The UK prison system has seen an increasing number of challenges over the past few years. One critical issue that remains under-addressed is the mental health and well-being of prison officers. Due to the high-stress nature of their job, prison officers are experiencing a growing mental health crisis, leading to high rates of staff turnover and sickness.

In this article, we will discuss the impact of deteriorating mental health on the well-being and retention of prison officers in the UK. We will delve into recent statistics and research to shine a light on the magnitude of the crisis and identify potential solutions.

Photo of prison wing and cells
Image Source: Tom Blackout via Unsplash

Based on research and statistics from the past five years, it is evident that the mental health of UK prison officers is in decline. The increasing levels of violence within prisons, coupled with a lack of appropriate support, have left prison officers to face immense psychological pressures.

A study from the University of Bedfordshire in 2018 found that 66% of prison officers had spoken to their colleagues about their mental health, and 37% had utilized employer-provided mental health support services 1. These statistics indicate that a substantial number of prison officers are suffering from mental health issues, potentially affecting their ability to carry out their jobs effectively, which in turn impacts staff retention and illness rates.

Staff Retention and Sickness

The decline in mental health among UK prison officers has had a profound impact on staff retention rates. High levels of stress, burnout, and dissatisfaction are contributing factors to the high turnover rates. In 2020, figures from the Ministry of Justice revealed that the number of prison officers leaving their jobs had risen by 46% in just three years to reach 2,202 in the year 2019-20 2.

Sickness rates among prison officers have also seen a rise. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of sick days taken increased from 87,800 to 123,700, a 40% increase that has been attributed to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression 3. The increased sickness rate creates staffing shortages, adding more pressure on the remaining officers and exacerbating their mental health struggles.

The Staffing Crisis and Its Effect on Prisoners

The staffing issues plaguing the UK prison service have become a significant concern for the welfare and behaviour of inmates. The declining numbers of staff have led to a reduction in both the frequency and quality of rehabilitation programs. These programs are critical to helping prisoners develop essential skills and understanding, enabling them to reintegrate into society upon release. Without enough personnel to implement and oversee these therapeutic initiatives, prisoners' opportunities for growth and rehabilitation are compromised.

The inadequate staffing levels have also given rise to a pertinent issue - the increase in lockdown situations. A lack of staff typically results in prisoners spending more time in their cells, which leads to prolonged periods of isolation. Research has shown that extended periods of solitary confinement negatively impact prisoners' mental health, often exacerbating issues such as anxiety, depression, and paranoia. In extreme cases, this can lead to self-harm or even suicidal tendencies. Therefore, understaffing indirectly contributes to an escalation in poor mental health amongst inmates.

Finally, a shortage of prison officers also impacts the overall security and order within the prison. Reduced staff numbers lead to less supervision and control, which in turn, can escalate inmate behaviour issues and incidents of violence. Likewise, the ability to mediate conflicts between prisoners becomes compromised with fewer officers to manage these situations, creating an environment that breeds aggression and fear. Thus, the staffing crisis within the UK prison service poses significant repercussions for prisoners' welfare and behaviour.

Challenges and Proposed Solutions

To mitigate the crisis, the UK government must prioritize the well-being of prison officers. Several steps need to be undertaken to improve this situation:

  1. Enhanced mental health support: The availability of mental health support services for prison officers should be increased. Providing access to psychologist visits on a regular basis, employee assistance programs, and stress management seminars will help alleviate stress and prevent such issues from escalating.

  2. Training and support: Offer comprehensive training for prison officers to help them manage the pressures of their job more effectively. Include resilience-building programs and ongoing support for the officers from senior management.

  3. Staffing levels and shift management: Address the issue of staffing shortages by hiring more prison officers and reducing the frequency of long, stressful shifts. Properly managed shift scheduling helps maintain the well-being of officers.

  4. Improved prison conditions: Policies aimed at reducing prison overcrowding and violence will subsequently result in a safer and less stressful environment for prison officers.


The mental health crisis among UK prison officers is adversely affecting staff retention and contributing to rising sickness rates. By providing adequate mental health support, proper training, improved staffing levels, and efforts to enhance prison conditions, we can work together to improve the well-being and safety of these officers, thereby easing the stress on the UK prison system as a whole.



Lahmeyer, J., Liebling, A., & Arnold, H. (2018). Understanding and supporting mental health in prison. University of Bedfordshire.
Ministry of Justice. (2020). Prison officer turnover April 2017 to March 2020. UK Government.
Ministry of Justice. (2020). Prison officer sickness: April 2015 to March 2020. UK Government.
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