UNO researchers to study link between stress and health

Photo courtesy UNO News (

Charlotte Reilly

Researchers in a University of Nebraska at Omaha study will look at the link between officers’ exposure to violence in prison and longterm mental and physical health problems.

The study is being led by Professor Benjamin Steiner, Assistant Professor Joseph Schwartz and two doctoral students. Steiner and Schwartz both work in UNO’s School of Criminology, ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 20 schools of its kind. They were awarded a $787,907 grant from the National Institute of Justice, which is one of the largest grants received by the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Steiner and Schwartz are examining biological stress markers among correction officers at three prisons in Minnesota. The information collected will be the first step to determining if there is a link between officers’ stress and health problems.

“There is some evidence to suggest that exposure to critical incidents affects stress among correctional officers, and there is some evidence that correctional officers exhibit higher levels of mental health problems than the general population,” Steiner said. “Our study will unpack whether direct and/or indirect exposure to workplace critical incidents impact psychological and physiological indicators of stress among officers, and whether elevated levels of stress increase the probability that officers develop mental health problems.”

The research will begin January 2018 and continue through December 2020. Steiner and Schwartz will track changes in officers’ stress levels and health throughout the two years.

“(The research) has the potential to improve the lives of correctional officers, improve the safety of correctional facilities and save taxpayers money by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of correctional staff,” Schwartz said. “By understanding what causes stress, and ultimately mental health problems, in correctional officers we can hopefully create new policies that decrease staff turnover and burnout, limit absenteeism and increase staff morale. I’ve had very few opportunities to make such a difference with research.”

UNO doctoral students will help collect data and analyze the data during the project. Researchers at UNL will also collaborate on the project.

“This project is a collaborative effort, not only between multiple faculty members in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, but also across the NU system. One of our research partners (Dr. Jessica Calvi) is located in the Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior (CB3) at the University of Nebraska Lincoln,” Schwartz said. “It has been an absolute pleasure to collaborate with CB3, their staff and resident faculty. We are very excited about future projects that will likely stem from this collaboration as well.”

As well as being excited about helping correction officers and collaborating with other universities, Steiner and Schwartz are happy they can provide invaluable research opportunities to UNO graduate students.

“The grant is providing funding to support multiple graduate students in UNO’s nationally ranked School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. These graduate students will not only be directly involved in the study, but they will receive handson training related to performing field research,” Steiner said. “Opportunities to work on a project of this magnitude while in graduate school are rare, I am happy that we can provide such opportunities to some of our students.”