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Researchers have highlighted the need for probation service employers to recognise the potential of the job negatively impacting the work-life balance of probation workers.

Chalen Westaby, Jake Phillips and Andrew Fowler from Sheffield Hallam University explored the subject in a paper published in the European Journal of Probation entitled “Spillover and work-family conflict in probation practice: Managing the boundary between work and home life.”

Challenging and difficult clients

The impact of liaising with challenging and difficult clients, and how that affects probation practitioners’ lives outside the workplace, has rarely been explored in the same way it has for police officers, prison officers and social workers.

Yet the evidence suggests that difficulties arise for practitioners in maintaining a work-life balance and not allowing their professional role to seep into, or impact on, their private and home lives.

The study, compiled from interviews with 18 probation service staff in England, explores the issue of “spillover” from work into home life, with practitioners talking about a “skewed view” of the world, being “changed by the job” especially in terms of parenting practice, and struggling to know how or whether to act on the information obtained through being a probation officer.

The spillover theory maintains that despite boundaries between work and family, behaviours and emotions from one domain spill over to the other.

Altruistic imaginings

Issues emerging from the study included “desensitisation” and how probation officers become desensitised by dealing with sexual and violent offences as well as problems associated with taking work home or the risk they may meet offenders in the street when out with their family. In this respect, probation work differs from that of prison officers who leave prisoners behind when they go home.

Other areas explored were so-called “altruistic imaginings” where probation officers felt they wanted to help their clients in material ways, “darker imaginings” and the notion of probation as “dirty work”, where practitioners felt “tainted through marshalling the boundary between non-offending and offending communities.”

Steps to improve work-life balance

With findings confirming that ‘work and family lives are interdependent’ and that spillover occurs between work and family lives, the researchers suggested that probation providers as employers should introduce codes of ethics, such as those published by the Probation Institute and BASW, to acknowledge the strain that such work places on practitioners and provide a mechanism to ameliorate the pressures.

With some probation officers proactive in managing the boundary between work and home life, and others not so well equipped to do so, they urge organisations to recognise that work and family are interrelated domains and have a mutual impact on one another.

They argue: “Probation providers need to consider the ramifications of the findings in terms of training, workforce planning, retention and sickness as well as consider the need for organisational policies that enable probation practitioners to negotiate the boundary between work and home life.”

If you’re a probation officer, how do you maintain a positive work-life balance? Please share your thoughts or tips using the comments box below.
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