Social Support and Satisfaction with Life among Portuguese Prison Officers: The Mediating Effect of Anxiety

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Social Support and Satisfaction with Life among Portuguese Prison Officers: The Mediating Effect of Anxiety

Bibiana Monteiro(1, Vítor Costa(1, and Samuel Monteiro(1,2

1) Universidade da Beira Interior
2) NECE - Research Centre for Business Sciences


Article history:
Received 24 October 2023
Accepted 2 January 2024


Work in the prison system can present a high risk to the mental and physical health of prison officers due to the dangerousness, diversity, and complexity associated with this job. Therefore, knowing that prison officers play a key role in prisons, it is essential to explore variables that help understand the health and well-being of these professionals. Thus, this study aims to explore and describe the relationship between social support, generalized anxiety, and life satisfaction in a sample of 100 Portuguese prison officers. The results showed the existence of a significant positive relationship between social support and life satisfaction. Social support also shows a significant negative relationship, decreasing anxiety. It was also found that increased anxiety significantly contributed to a decrease in the participants’ satisfaction with life. It was also possible to verify the existence of a mediating relationship between social support and satisfaction with life through anxiety. The results are subsequently discussed and translated into implications for research and professional practice.



Prison officers
Social Support
Satisfaction with Life

Apoyo social y satisfacción con la vida en agentes penitenciarios portugueses: El efecto mediador de la ansiedad


El trabajo en el sistema penitenciario puede presentar un alto riesgo para la salud mental y física de los funcionarios de prisiones debido a la peligrosidad, diversidad y complejidad asociadas a este trabajo. Por lo tanto, sabiendo que los agentes penitenciarios desempeñan un papel clave en las prisiones, es esencial explorar variables que ayuden a comprender la salud y el bienestar de estos profesionales. Así, este estudio tiene como objetivo explorar y describir la relación entre el apoyo social, la ansiedad generalizada y la satisfacción con la vida en una muestra de 100 agentes penitenciarios portugueses. Los resultados mostraron la existencia de una relación positiva significativa entre el apoyo social y la satisfacción con la vida. El apoyo social también muestra una relación negativa significativa, disminuyendo la ansiedad. También se comprobó que el aumento de la ansiedad contribuía significativamente a la disminución de la satisfacción con la vida de los participantes. También se pudo comprobar la existencia de una relación mediadora entre el apoyo social y la satisfacción con la vida a través de la ansiedad. Posteriormente, se discuten los resultados y se traducen en implicaciones para la investigación y la práctica profesional.



Agentes penitenciarios
Apoyo social
Satisfacción con la vida


Working in prisons is inherently stressful and poses risks due to its dangerousness, diversity, and complexity, leading to negative health outcomes for prison officers (Brower, 2013; Forsyth et al., 2022). The exposure to traumatic events and various stressful factors, makes prison officers more susceptible to suffering negative health consequences, such as stress, exhaustion, and psychological disorders, including suicide, thus making prisons a high-risk environment for the mental and physical health of these workers (Bell et al., 2019; Brower, 2013; Johnson et al., 2005). In this context, it is crucial to explore psychological variables to understand the determinants and impacts of mental health.

Prison officers have a complex, potentially conflicting role, with a duality between ensuring security and promoting the rehabilitation process. Thus, on the one hand, their role includes preserving security, policing inmates’ behavior by imposing order, control, and observation, preventing escapes, fights, and drug trafficking. On the other hand, to promote the rehabilitation process, prison officers are expected to provide services to inmates such as support, assistance, and counseling (Bourbonnais et al., 2007; Scott, 2006). In addition to the complexity of the role, prison officers also face a lack of support and autonomy, and poor-quality working relationships (Kinman et al., 2016), which can have a negative impact on the health and well-being of these workers, decreasing the professional performance and the levels of life satisfaction (Brower, 2013; Lambert et al., 2018).

Therefore, it is important to explore variables that help to understand the health and well-being of these professionals. In the current study, we explore the role of social support, generalized anxiety, and satisfaction with life among prison officers. Considering prison officers’ working conditions, social support emerges as a buffer, with a protective role during times of greater stress in individuals’ lives, making them better able to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

Social support is a multidimensional concept categorized into three dimensions (i.e, family, friends, significant others). It involves a network of connections with individuals who can offer assistance and support, helping to alleviate the impact of work-related tension and stress (Bezerra et al., 2016; Lambert et al., 2010). This support stems from two sources: informal, encompassing family, friends, and significant others; and formal, involving health professionals and other professionals (Gouin et al., 2016).

Among the numerous mental health issues that can affect prison officers, generalized anxiety can be characterized by excessive and uncontrollable anxiety and worry (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2014; World Health Organization [WHO], 2020) about the individual’s daily life. It can also be accompanied by other somatic mental symptoms (WHO, 2020), which can significantly impair an individual’s psychosocial functioning (APA, 2014).  It is also associated with at least three of the following characteristics: a) restlessness or feeling on the edge; b) easy fatigue; c) difficulty concentrating or having a blank mind; d) irritability; e) muscle tension; and f) sleep disturbances (APA, 2014). Consequently, there are some social conditions that increase the risk of this disorder, namely being single, widowed or divorced, socially isolated, and a lack of support from friends or family.

Life satisfaction, as a component of subjective well-being (together with positive and negative affect) refers to the subject’s conscious cognitive evaluation of their own life based on their own criteria (Pavot & Diener, 1993). The criteria may include judgments about life, work, marriage, school, and other domains that may be based on past emotional experiences or emotional memories, but they may also include explicit goals, values, and standards of comparison (Biswas-Diener et al., 2004). Life satisfaction is an important indicator of psychological health in its association with emotional and psychological variables and with daily life events (Tsitsas et al., 2019).

Understanding the role of the prison officer, the study of these three variables seems relevant to explore the antecedents and consequences of prison officers’ anxiety. Due to the scarcity of studies on these variables in this population, this study is innovative, providing new scientific evidence.

Social Support, Anxiety and Satisfaction with Life: Theoretical Relationships

Recent literature has explored the relationship between social support, anxiety, and life satisfaction (Gonzalez-Saenz de Tejada et al., 2017; McCanlies et al., 2018; Tsitsas et al., 2019). Considering the relationship between social support and life satisfaction, McCanlies et al. (2018) found that higher levels of satisfaction with life are associated with higher levels of social support, exploring life satisfaction as both a predictor and outcome of social support. However, life satisfaction is often studied as an outcome of social support. In their research, Au et al. (2009) and Khalid (2021) found social support to be a significant predictor of higher life satisfaction. Therefore, a high level of social support seems to lead to greater life satisfaction.

In what concerns the relationship between social support and anxiety, the literature has provided evidence of a negative relationship between these two variables (e.g., Gonzalez-Saenz de Tejada et al., 2017), given that higher levels of social support were associated with a reduction in anxiety symptoms. In addition, a study in Iran further the protective role of family support against anxiety, identifying family as the primary and foremost source of support (Roohafza et al., 2014). Therefore, social support can be seen as a factor that reduces anxiety symptoms in prison officers.

Regarding the relationship between anxiety and satisfaction with life, studies with different samples, including 410 students in Athens (Greece) (Tsitsas et al., 2019), 348 students in Cyprus (Serin et al., 2010), and 152 elderly Filipinos (Jose et al., 2018), have suggested that there is evidence of a negative relationship between these variables, showing that lower levels of anxiety were associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. Therefore, given that anxiety is related to adversities in the functioning of significant areas (such as family, school, and social relationships), people with high levels of anxiety will have a negative perception of their lives. So, those who have anxiogenic symptoms have lower levels of satisfaction with life (Dryman et al., 2016 cit. in Gonçalves et al., 2017). Considering the foregoing, it follows that anxiety may be a predictor of life satisfaction.

Given the literature reviewed, and following previous research (Xiaowen et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2021), this study wants to explore anxiety as a mediating variable between social support and satisfaction with life. The following hypotheses are formulated:

H1: There is a positive association between social support and satisfaction with life.

H2: There is a negative association between social support and anxiety.

H3: There is a negative association between anxiety and satisfaction with life.

H4: Anxiety mediates the relationship between social support and satisfaction with life.

Figure 1 presents the proposed mediation model.


[Place Figure 1 here]



This study is part of the EU-funded project “LEADCOR – Leadership development for occupational stress reduction in correctional settings” ( Data were collected online between February and April 2022. A questionnaire was created and hosted on the EU Survey platform and distributed via mailing list to prison officers in Portugal by the Sindicato Nacional do Corpo da Guarda Prisional (SNCGP). Ethical principles were respected, and the study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of UBI (CE-UBI-Pj- 2022-011).

Data were analyzed using IBM SPSS version 28 and the PROCESS macro (Hayes, 2013) version 4.2 for SPSS was also used to test the mediation model. JASP (Jasp Team, 2023) was used to perform confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). Fit indices are reported considering Kline’s (2016) recommendations and interpreted according to Hair et al.’s (2010) guidelines.


The sample consisted of 100 Portuguese prison officers aged between 28 and 63 (M = 45.4; SD = 8.0). The average length of professional experience in their current job was 20.0 years (SD = 8.6).

Table 1 shows that most of the sample is composed of men (77%). As far as academic qualifications are concerned, 58% have secondary education (12th grade), and a significant proportion work in a prison for adult males (73%). Finally, in terms of their role, while all these professionals are prison officers, 10 per cent have a managerial role.

[Place table 1 here]


Sociodemographic questionnaire

A sociodemographic questionnaire was used to characterize the sample according to age, gender, academic qualifications, the place where they work, years of experience, and their role in the prison service.

Social Support

Social support was assessed using the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (MSPSS) (Zimet et al., 1988), considering the Portuguese version by Carvalho et al. (2011). This 12-item instrument is a subjective assessment scale about the adequacy of social support. Items are assessed on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (Strongly disagree) to 7 (Strongly agree) (Carvalho et al., 2011). Items are grouped into three subscales (of 4 items each) to assess social support from specific sources (i.e., family, friends, and significant others). It is also possible to assess social support by calculating the average of the 12 items.

The Portuguese version used in the current study was previously validated with a sample of 454 students, 100 patients with depression, and 261 participants from the general population (Carvalho et al., 2011).  In the current study, scale construct validity was assessed with CFA, using maximum likelihood estimation. A total of three correlated factors (family, friends, and significant others) representing the three subscales were considered. Residual covariances were added between consecutive items (1-3, and 3-4) and items of the same factor (2-10, and 3-11) with similar content. s

Overall model fit is acceptable, with ?2 (47) = 91.32, p < .01; ?2/df = 1.94; CFI = .964; RMSEA = .097, p < .01; SRMR = .043. AVE was .71 (family), .84 (friends), and .60 (significant others).

In what concerns internal consistency, a Cronbach’s alpha (a) value of .92 was obtained for the family subscale, for the items relating to friends, internal consistency was very high (a = .95), and for the items capturing support from significant others the alpha values were high (a = .88). The internal consistency (a) of the total scale (12 items) was .95.


Anxiety was assessed using the GAD-7 (Spitzer et al., 2006), considering the Portuguese version by Sousa et al. (2015), consisting of a brief self-report instrument, comprising seven items, assessed on a Likert scale ranging from 0 (Rarely) to 3 (Almost every day). Higher scores show a greater presence of anxiety symptoms. This scale was created using the generalized anxiety disorder (DSM) symptom criteria (Parkerson et al., 2015), and aims to assess the individual's state of health during the previous two weeks. The Portuguese version was initially validated using a sample of 100 patients with clinical/psychiatric backgrounds (Sousa et al., 2015). Later, a study with 1,031 college students provided additional evidence for the good construct validity of the measure.  To assess the scale construct validity in the current study, a confirmatory factor analysis was done using maximum likelihood estimation. Overall model fit, after adding the covariance between four error pairs involving content-related items (2-7) and consecutive items (1-2, 2-3, and 6-7), indicates an acceptable model fit, ?2 (10) = 12.38, p = .261; ?2/df = 1.24; CFI = .996; RMSEA = .049, p = .45, SRMR = .020. AVE was .69, indicating good convergent validity. Internal consistency (a) was .94 in this study for the total scale (7 items).

Satisfaction with Life

Satisfaction with life was assessed using the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) (Diener et al., 1985), which was adapted to Portuguese by Neto (1993). This instrument has five items assessed on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (totally disagree) to 7 (totally agree). The scores range from 5 to 35, with higher scores revealing higher levels of perceived satisfaction with life. The scale shows good psychometric qualities and is a brief instrument that is easy to understand, apply, and quote. It can also be used with adults from all age groups and cultural backgrounds. The Portuguese version of the SWLS has been extensively used, with an initial validation study with a sample of 217 adolescents (Neto, 1993), and a more recent one with 130 participants (Laranjeira, 2009). In the current sample, CFA with maximum likelihood estimation was used to test a one factor solution. After considering the covariance between items 3 and 4, a good model fit is observed with ?2 (4) = 6.31, p = .18; ?2/df = 1.58; CFI = .993; RMSEA = .076, p = .28, SRMR = .024. AVE was .61, which indicates good convergent validity. An internal consistency (a) of .90 was obtained.


The descriptive statistics of the instruments used - mean, median, standard deviation, minimum, and maximum - can be seen in Table 2.

[Place table 2 here]

The correlations between the variables show that anxiety has a significant negative correlation with social support (r = -.38, p < .01). Satisfaction with life, on the other hand, shows a negative correlation with anxiety (r = -.54, p < .01) and a positive correlation with social support (r = .38, p < .01). It is also worth mentioning that the sociodemographic variables age, academic qualifications and years of experience did not show statistically significant correlations with the variables under study. Table 3 shows the data in more detail, including the square root of AVE, showing that the measures have discriminant validity.

To test the hypotheses under study, we first carried out a linear regression (to test H1) and then used a mediation model with bootstrapping, following the guidelines of Hayes (2013) to test the remaining hypotheses. H1 predicts the existence of a positive association between social support and satisfaction with life, and it was found that social support has a significant positive effect on satisfaction with life (ß = 2.25, p < .001, 95%IC 1.15, 3.35), thus failing to reject H1. Social support alone explains 14% of the variance in satisfaction with life. The results for H2, which hypothesizes the existence of a negative association between social support and anxiety, indicate that social support negatively predicts anxiety (a = -1.96, p < .001, 95%IC -2.93, - .99), thus failing to reject H2. Regarding H3, that predicts the existence of a negative association between anxiety and satisfaction with life, the results show that anxiety has a negative impact on satisfaction with life (b = -.52, p < .001, 95%IC -.72, -.32), failing to reject H3. Finally, H4 predicts that anxiety plays a mediating role in the relationship between social support and satisfaction with life, confirming that the effect of social support on satisfaction with life through anxiety is 1.02 (95%IC .40, 1.70), thus failing to reject hypothesis H4. When the mediator is considered, the direct effect of social support on satisfaction with life is significant (c' = 1.23; p = .02), although it is lower than the value observed without the presence of the mediator (down from 2.25 to 1.23). Social support and anxiety explain 32.4% of the variance in satisfaction with life. An illustration of the results is available on Figure 2.

[Place Table 3 here]


[Place Figure 2 here]


The present study aimed to explore the role of anxiety as a mediator in the relationship between social support and satisfaction with life. The results show that social support has a positive impact on satisfaction with life, showing that for prison officers, being in contact with people that are important to them positively influences their assessment of their own lives. The results align with previous studies showing that with good support, individuals can cope with internal and external pressures, providing them with a sense of identity, belonging, and a more meaningful life (Khalid, 2021; McCanlies et al., 2018). Social support provides emotional resources that help individuals in problem-solving, coping with stress, and increasing their overall sense of well-being.

Secondly, knowing that anxiety can be characterized by excessive and uncontrollable worries that individuals have about everyday matters, this study demonstrates that social support has a significant negative impact on anxiety. In other words, it is possible to observe that providing support (whether from family, friends, or another significant person) can reduce symptoms such as nervousness, tension, irritability, restlessness, and excessive worries, thereby lowering anxiety levels in this sample of prison officers. Additionally, studies by Gonzalez-Saenz de Tejada et al. (2017) and Zhang et al. (2021) had already shown the existence of a negative relationship between these two variables, demonstrating that higher levels of social support were associated with a reduction in anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that among the sources of support mentioned earlier, friends tend to be the ones who contribute the most to reducing anxiety, highlighting the importance of friendships as a significant resource for dealing with anxiety. These results also suggest the protective role that social support plays in relation to anxiety, as it offers emotional support, understanding, and the sharing of concerns and can assist in relieving anxiety symptoms.

It was also possible to observe the negative impact of anxiety on satisfaction with life, with prison officers who have greater concerns generally being less satisfied with their lives. However, if anxiety is reduced, individuals may experience a greater sense of congruence between their lives and their ideals, understanding that their living conditions are excellent, that they are satisfied with their lives, and that they have achieved what has been truly important in their lives so far, leading to greater and better satisfaction with life. This result is in line with previous research on the impact of anxiety on satisfaction with life (Serin et al., 2010; Tsitsas et al., 2019). Thus, the results suggest that high levels of anxiety negatively impact the overall evaluation these professionals make of their lives.

Regarding the results of the mediation model analysis, they show that social support from various sources has an indirect impact on satisfaction with life through anxiety. In other words, when prison officers perceive greater social support, they may experience lower levels of anxiety, which, in turn, may lead to an improvement in their satisfaction with life. Therefore, social support plays a protective role in this sample, helping to reduce anxiety levels, which, consequently, contributes to greater satisfaction with life.

This study can be considered an innovative one, continuing the exploration of the mediating role of anxiety (Xiaowen et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2021) in the relationship between social support and satisfaction with life. In this regard, it is the first study to investigate, in a sample of prison officers, professionals for whom mental health issues may be problematic, the direct and indirect effects of social support and anxiety on life satisfaction. In other words, social support increases life satisfaction by lowering anxiety while also having a direct positive impact on satisfaction with life.

The results should be interpreted considering several limitations, which give rise to implications for future research. Given that this study focused on informal sources of support (e.g., family, friends, and significant others), future studies may explore the role of formal sources of support (e.g., healthcare professionals, colleagues) to understand if these sources have a similar impact in reducing anxiety and increasing satisfaction with life. Considering the cross-sectional nature of the present study, the results obtained are not generalizable, and causal relationships cannot be established. Future research can collect data at different time points to assess the possibility of temporal changes in the studied variables as well as to explore social support in its different dimensions and typologies (formal and informal) through qualitative methods. The use of an online survey may have contributed to a less representative sample, as the online environment presents limitations for those less familiarized with information and communication technologies. Therefore, it is suggested that a combination of virtual and traditional dissemination methods would be a viable option to obtain a richer and more representative sample of the population. In this study, there is a noticeable gender imbalance in the sample (77% - 23%) that reflects the gender distribution of prison officers (approximately 86% - 14%) in Portugal, as shared by the General Directorate of Reintegration and Prison Services with the authors on July 28, 2023. Future research should seek to collect data in a female-only sample or in a sample with a balanced gender ratio to determine if the results obtained in this study are replicable in such a sample.

This study also has potential implications for further research, as it appears to be the first study testing this mediation model. Therefore, future studies should be developed to test the relationship between these variables in different populations, validating the adequacy of the model in different samples. Given that in the present study, social support remains a statistically significant predictor even in the presence of anxiety, future research could investigate an alternative model where anxiety serves as a moderating variable, considering the impact of social support on satisfaction with life at different levels of anxiety.

A set of practical implications emerge from the study. Considering the characteristics of the job, the presence of a clinical psychologist or occupational health professional in prisons is essential, providing support and assistance not only to inmates but also to prison officers, helping them to cope with the professional challenges, including techniques for managing anxiety and stress. It is also crucial to develop policies to support mental health issues, including the implementation of mental health training programs and the establishment of psychological support protocols. Awareness and education about mental health issues faced by prison officers are also important. Awareness can be raised through campaigns, lectures, and training. Education aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental health by providing information about mental health conditions and encouraging individuals to seek help and support when needed. It is also important to promote a healthy and mentally supportive work environment for prison officers, including appropriate work management practices, the establishment of peer support mechanisms, the promotion of self-care activities, and the provision of resources to address daily challenges. These implications aim to recognize the issues faced by prison officers, promote mental health, and enhance their well-being. Therefore, through targeted interventions and policies, it is possible to improve the quality of life and reduce the negative impacts that anxiety can have on this profession.

This research is groundbreaking, examining anxiety as a mediator in the relationship between social support and life satisfaction in a sample where mental health issues are critical and warrant further investigation in clinical and health psychology research. It also paves the way for future research and interventions aimed at exploring and promoting social support and understanding its relationship with anxiety and satisfaction with life in different populations and contexts, providing resources to enhance individuals' well-being.


The authors would like to thank the National Union of Prison Guards Corps (Sindicato Nacional do Corpo da Guarda Prisional - SNCGP) for their contribution to the data collection procedures. The current research was partly funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ program, Grant Agreement nr. 2019-1-PT01-KA204-061285.


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