Molly couldn’t wait until the end of the summer camp season, and even though there were only three weeks left, she was tempted to quit. She loved the idea of working at camp, especially the camp in which she had grown up and worked at for the past two seasons, but she was just mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted.
The summer started out well enough — she’d had great enthusiasm, just like past seasons. Now, however, Molly felt she couldn’t catch up on her sleep and was constantly run down, her stomach bothered her almost daily, and she seemed to be increasingly irritated with campers and fellow staff members. She was also having difficulty keeping up with her job responsibilities, which seemed to be piling up. Molly felt stressed to the max and it didn’t take much to set her off, especially after being outside all day in the summer heat.
Molly sensed she was getting a reputation as someone who couldn’t handle the pressure of working at camp. Her supervisor said, “Molly, you knew what it would be like out here. Everybody else is going through the same things; you just don’t hear them complaining about it. Just suck it up for a few more weeks and you’ll be done.”
In past seasons, Molly might have worried about getting a bad performance evaluation. Now, she only cared about surviving the summer with her sanity and getting back home as soon as possible.
While possibly extreme, Molly’s scenario highlights several common situations that day and resident camp staff members might struggle with each season. Normal work and life stressors are often intensified in a residential camp environment that, by its nature, leads to high levels of mental and physical fatigue because of 24/7 job expectations; isolation from supportive resources, such as friends and family; and pressure to assure that campers are safe and happy. Counselors might have to spend entire summers away from home, in almost constant interaction with colleagues, campers, and families, during the vari¬able, and sometimes unfavorable, weather conditions of summer.
The effects of these pressures for staff members can lead to increased illness resulting in absenteeism, low levels of motivation, poor job performance, and, eventually, burnout. Poor staff health has a negative impact on organizations that must reorganize resources to compensate for dispirited or absent staff, deal with the time and financial costs of staff turnover, and potentially experience reduced quality of service to campers.
The Focus on Camps
Campers are the focus of camps, and great efforts are taken each summer to ensure campers are healthy while at camp. A growing emphasis in camp programs is to promote positive health behaviors and teach campers how to make good choices once they return home.
Camp directors of ten assume that their staff members, on the other hand, already know how to take care of their physical and mental health, make appropriate choices, and handle the experience of camp as mature adults. Yet, camp staff are not necessarily mature adults. Many camp staff members fall into the demographic category increasingly called “emerging adulthood.” That is, they fall in an age range between late teens and late twenties that researchers argue is a key developmental period between adolescence and adulthood.
Because most camp counselors are in a stage that is neither adolescent nor full adulthood, they might not be able to figure it all out on their own. Intentional measures can be taken to ensure camp staff maintain their wellness and well-being, including their physical and mental health, during the summer camp season. The purpose of this article is to explore what wellness and well-being mean to camp staff and how camp directors might facilitate healthy staff who can meet the daily challenges of working at camp.
Wellness at Camp
Wellness has been a difficult concept to define (see www.definitionofwellness.com ). People tend to think of health solely in the terms of physical health, and even the term “physical health” gets misconstrued as the absence of sickness or injury, rather than the optimal functioning of human beings. While good physical health is an important component of wellness, wellness is a broad and complex concept that also considers other aspects of health, including psychological, social, and spiritual health as they relate to well-being. Well-being generally refers to a good and satisfactory condition characterized by health as well as happiness.
According to Dr. John Travis, optimal wellness implies high degrees of health, continually seeking to improve health, and being balanced across all areas and aspects of health (Travis & Ryan, 2004). Concentrating on one aspect of health will not create wellness. Focusing on psychological health by managing job stress (a common problem among those who work with youth) is just as important as maintaining physical health (e.g., through physical activity and good nutrition). In Molly’s example, she was not happy because of circumstances that were influencing her overall physical and mental health and wellness. She clearly had “wellness deficit.”
The Consequences of Wellness Deficit and Presenteeism on Camp Staff
Another way to consider this topic is to examine the effects of wellness deficit related to poor staff health and well-being. A 2009 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggested that employers often underestimate the economic costs of poor health among employees (Loeppke et al., 2009). This study concluded that in addition to increased healthcare costs for employers and higher levels of burnout and turnover, not paying attention to the health and wellness of staff members can negatively impact productivity and organizational effectiveness.
Even more important than absent employees, the biggest drains on organizational productivity are employees (e.g., camp staff) that show up to work but are unable to perform to their full capacity as a result of poor health and negative attitudes — a factor the authors called presenteeism. The lesson here is that if the intentional focus is NOT on staff well-being, staff might not be operating at their full potential. Healthy behaviors should not be left to chance.
Staff Taking Care of Themselves
Camp staff members are generally a self-reliant bunch. Therefore, staff members are expected to take responsibility for managing their own health and well-being. In a 2011 article in Camping Magazine, Ethan Schafer, PhD, highlighted some of the practical ways in which staff can take better care of themselves during the season. Among Schafer’s suggestions are for staff to get plenty of sleep, abstain from alcohol, take time off to relax and restore, and build relationships with fellow staff members for support.
Schafer highlighted one of the most critical threats to wellness for camp staff members: sleep deprivation. Studies have shown that even one hour of sleep deprivation can reduce IQ function, increase stress, and inhibit one’s ability to handle complex situations (Bronson & Merryman, 2009). Additionally, while the emphasis here is mostly about residential camps, sleep deprivation can be a problem for day camp staff, as well. Even though these staff members are sleeping at home, they might be more susceptible to “burning the candle at both ends,” either through the temptation of nighttime recreation, taking college summer classes, or even working a second job.
The Role of Camp Administrators
Even armed with the knowledge of the need to maintain health and wellness and Schafer’s practical tips, camp staff might not be equipped to tackle this problem on their own. The story about Molly is a case in point. Camp staff certainly need to take ultimate responsibility for their health and well-being. However, even when individuals are motivated to make healthy lifestyle choices, an unhealthy environment might prevent them from doing so. Camp environments are not considered unhealthy, and yet unknowingly they can be less than optimal unless camp administrators acknowledge that health responsibility for staff must be shared.
As in other industries, the administrators at camp are critical in the process of making sure camp environments are supportive for staff health and well-being (Gilbreath & Benson, 2004). A health-promoting environment might also encourage individuals not aware of health consequences to make healthier decisions. Sometimes young people as well as adults are just not aware that they can do better if they have external supports. Just assuming staff can figure it out and asking staff members to fend for themselves might not be enough. Camp administrators can create social and physical environments at camp that make healthy decisions relatively easy. In fact, continually telling camp staff to take care of themselves, while at the same time not providing a health-promoting environment that helps them to make healthy decisions, might do more harm than good. Staff might resist this authority and just become more aware of their inadequacies and inability to be healthy.
Therefore, action needs to accompany expectations and words. For camp administrators, the first step is creating a foundation within the organization to promote and support healthy decision making as a desired behavior. To begin, administrators and health supervisors together can assess and note problems that staff members have faced during previous seasons. Once this assessment is made, administrators can examine their philosophy and goals regarding healthy camp environments for both campers and adults.
A second step might be to include the topic of personal health and well-being in staff training. Precamp training is packed with topics that need to be covered. However, for the success of the programs for the entire summer, spending some time talking with staff about their well-being might be useful. At the beginning of camp, no one anticipates potential problems, but being honest about the possibilities is im¬portant. One approach that could be used in staff training is to have staff consider and list what they need to be healthy (e.g., daily exercise, getting more sleep, taking time off, opportunities to discuss problems). They could then make a second list of the things they, as individuals, are responsible for from the overall list. Finally, they can list what supports they might need from camp supervisors and administrators to maintain their well-being over the course of the summer. This approach will bring the issue into the open and also emphasize the dual responsibility that exists for staff well-being.
If precamp training is too busy, this topic could be covered at a staff meeting or in-service training after the first week or two of camp. Further, over the course of the summer, checking in with staff about their health could be important. Discussing the expectations around camp policies as they relate to sleep necessities might be debatable, but issues such as appropriate behavior on nights off, curfews for returning to camp on nights off, and hours that the staff house is open might need to be negotiated with staff. Both supervisors and staff will need to understand the importance of a healthy staff to the camp’s capacity to achieve its mission and strategic goals. This process also requires the development and sustainability of an organizational climate that respects work-life balance rather than simply rewarding staff that go “above and beyond” the call of duty all the time. Further, to borrow advice from Camp For All’s Kurt Podeszwa (2007), administrators should also remember the role model principle and adopt practices and behaviors that promote development of their own wellness and well-being if they expect staff to follow suit.
Staff will likely have many ideas. Some might be easy to achieve; others might require creative efforts. Some possible ideas include:
- Tips and sessions on time management
- Training sessions on assertiveness
- Group participation in relaxation skills and/or meditation (which individuals can also do alone)
- Staff nature hikes
- Health and wellness tips in e-mail reminders to staff members
- Active staff and group meetings (for example: taking a physical or stretch break for two minutes if the meeting is more than an hour, doing a two-minute deep breathing or guided imagery break if a discussion stalls, trying a walk¬ing meeting if the group is small — see http://newsletter.uoregon.edu/archives/spring-2011/active-meetings/ )
- Healthy food options
- Organized recreational opportunities
- If possible, allowing three to four consecutive days off once during the summer
- Redesigning job duties to encourage au¬tonomy and flexibility
Every camp is different, so the problems and solutions should be established in partnership with staff members. Staff members should not be forced into any of these activities. They should always be able to say no, but a camp administrator should be looking for alternatives that might be useful for all staff.As is true with any camp program, developing a comprehensive wellness approach will take planning, goal setting, and implementation to be effective. One possible approach is to create a wellness committee comprised of staff members from multiple areas of camp, including health staff and administration. This group would take on the specific responsibility of ensuring that the recommendations from staff members are appropriately resourced and executed. Additionally, camps will need to evaluate the outcomes of their wellness plan to ensure recommendations are actually leading to improved health and well-being of camp staff.
Benefits and Challenges
Every year, parents entrust camps to provide a safe, healthy, enriching, and fun summer experience for their children. While being a staff member at camp is one of the most rewarding experiences a young adult can have, it can also be one of the most challenging jobs in their lifetime. When the challenges of camp exceed the benefits of the job, as seemed to be the case for Molly in the opening story, camp staff have the potential to get run down, stressed, depressed, and eventually burned out. In this process, staff productivity can decline and the effectiveness of a camp in fulfilling its obligations to campers and their families might be compromised.
Michael Brandwein (2002) argues that a supervisor’s most important task is to support his or her staff to do their best work. Providing the resources and environments that promote health and well-being is one way camp administrators can make it easier for staff to be more productive and effective. Staff members will be happier; campers and parents will be happier; and camp administrators will be happier!
Brandwein, M. (2002). Super staff supervision. Lincolnshire, IL: Michael Brandwein.
Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock: New thinking about children. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.
Gilbreath, B., & Benson, P. G. (2004). The contribution of supervisor behaviour to employee psychological well-being. Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health and Organisations, 18(3), 255–266.
Loeppke, R., Taitel, M., Haufle, V., Parry, T., Kessler, R. C., & Jinnett, K. (2009). Health and productivity as a business strategy: A multiemployer study. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 51(4).
Podeszwa, K. (2007). Who’s on the bus? (and how long will they be there?). Camping Magazine, 80(5). Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/members/knowledge/human/cm/0709podeszwa 
Schafer, E. D. (2011). Be at your best to do your best: Self-care strategies for camp counselors. Camping Magazine, 84(3).
Travis, J. W., & Ryan, R. S. (2004). Wellness workbook (3rd. ed.). Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
Michael B. Edwards, PhD, is an assistant professor in youth development in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University. His interests center on adolescent health and physical activity, and he serves on the Local Council of Leaders for ACA, Texoma.
Karla A. Henderson, PhD, is on the faculty at North Carolina State University and is currently completing a term as chair of ACA’s Committee on the Advancement of Research and Evaluation (CARE).
Katherine S. Campbell is a graduate student at Texas A&M and has been a staff member at several camps in Texas.
Originally published in the 2013 January/February Camping Magazine