8 Ways You Can Support Staff Mental Health This Summer & Beyond
Let’s get two things out of the way.
If it’s required/highly suggested/pressured, it doesn’t support staff mental health.
If it’s an event/thing that only takes place during time off, it probably doesn’t support staff mental health.
In full transparency, I learned these lessons the hard way. My bosses decided to run camp in 2020 (yeah, that 2020), and a few weeks into the summer, my staff were showing signs of something beyond burnout. They were experiencing real mental health issues, and the weight of working at camp was making it worse. So, in an effort to be half as cool as YMCA Camp Minikani with their Mountain Dew Party, I planned a staff lake day during the hottest part of the day during their time off (because unlike Minikani, I couldn’t find help to do it during the week). The staff were not thrilled. We canceled it. Looking back, I broke the big rules, so, duh, it stood no chance of working (or being helpful if it did!).
Staff mental health is SO important to what we do, and it’s our job to support them in that. While I was working at camp full time, I continually had “urgent” things pop up that got in the way of this “important” one (maybe I should’ve paid more attention to the urgent/important principle we’re always talking about in TSCS), but now that I’ve stepped back from running a traditional summer camp and into the role of helping camp directors with TSCS, I’m passionate about figuring out ways camps can do this better. I’ve got a few below!
1. Partner with BetterHelp, Talkspace, or Private Practices
If you’re unfamiliar with BetterHelp and Talkspace, they’re two leaders in virtual therapy. They also work with businesses (and have non-profit rates!) to cover their staff. Get in touch with them to see if you can afford to offer their services to your staff. If you can, go for it! If not, think about grants that could help or start a small fundraising campaign. It’s super possible that not everyone on your team will take advantage of this, so it may cost less than you think. Poll your staff to see how many would be interested, and get started finding the money!
There may also be private practitioners who you can partner with to save appointments for your staff. This may not look like everyone on your team having access to therapy every week. Instead, it may look like the practitioner saving 2-3 hours a week for your staff to have drop-in appointments on a first-come, first-serve basis. This isn’t fully-fledged out — I know you’d have to do some thinking around if there may be circumstances that some staff take precedence, etc. — but I think it’s an interesting place to start.
2. Offer help to navigate insurance and find appointments
Our staff are often young adults, and some of them have NO idea how to get started with therapy. Let staff know that you (or someone on your staff) is available to help them look up mental health providers who are in-network. Have an advocate (even a volunteer) who can sit with your staff (even virtually), their insurance card, and the computer, and teach them how to navigate finding a practitioner.
3. Provide time for therapy appointments
Real talk: If a staff member had to go to the doctor/physical therapy every week or two to check on something (and it couldn’t overlap with their time off), what would you do? I’d be slightly annoyed (I said real talk!), but without question, I’d make the time.
Why can’t we treat mental health the same way? Give your staff time for therapy appointments and communicate as soon as possible that camp will make this work for them. This can take a lot of pressure off of staff who may be wondering how they’ll be able to get support during the summer.
If you can’t provide extra time, communicate that, too! At least let your staff know what hours their time off is most likely to fall AND ask them to reach out if they need a consistent time off each week to accommodate any commitments.
Talk about therapy. Normalize therapy. And…
4. Provide space for therapy appointments
No one wants to have an hour-long therapy session in their car or at a random picnic table around camp in the heat of summer (no thanks). They also don’t want to have their therapy session somewhere people could walk in or overhear.
If we really want our staff to know that we support them taking care of themselves in this way, we need to give them the space to do it. Look around your camp and find ANY space (it doesn’t have to be huge!) that you could designate for therapy/meditation/other private needs. Some ideas for this space are:
Checking the WiFi connection (or providing a hotspot — you can get monthly plans!)
Having a desk/shelf that a laptop or tablet could rest on
Providing a noise machine
Painting it a calming color
Decorating with some fun candles
Installing a light outside the door (with the switch inside) that staff can use to show the room is occupied
Stocking it with pens, sticky notes, note pads, coloring sheets, colored pencils, etc.
5. Warn staff they may encounter triggers
Campers come to us with all different backgrounds, and so do staff. We want camps to be a safe place for campers to share their experiences, but our staff may have similar experiences that carry trauma. Realistically, staff may hear about abuse, assault, neglect, eating disorders, or so many other things that may be REALLY hard to hear. Campers may talk about body sizes, body shapes, scars, etc. This part of the job can be REALLY tough.
To be fair to our staff, we need to let people know that this could be part of the job before they agree to join our team. We need to let staff know it’s okay if they’re not the right person to have certain tough conversations. We also need to give them the tools to get themselves out of those conversations while still giving the camper support. That may look like calling another staff member to switch immediately or working with the camper to schedule time with another staff member.
6. Consider hiring subs and have a plan for last-minute breaks
We can give staff all the support we can think of, but sometimes, people just need an extra break. Last year, I had more staff than ever ask for mental health breaks, and I was caught without an answer. Consider reaching out to former staff, local teachers, etc., and having some backup staff ready to come in for a few days or weeks to give staff extra time off if they need it. Normalize this and make sure staff know it’s an option. And if there’s a limit to how many people can take a break at one time (understandable!), frontload that so staff are more understanding if they’re told “not this week.”
There may also be more immediate needs for coverage — staff may hit their limit and need just 5-20 minutes ASAP. For example, you could go through your schedule and make a list of what staff members are at camp and not in ratio with kids at different times during the day. Be ready to call on them (or even you!) to jump in for a bit if a staff member needs this small amount of time, and make sure they know they could be called on. Think through how you could combine groups (maybe with two CITs taking lead of the groups and one staff member supervising) to cover for just a bit. These may not be things you want to do every day, but they’ll work in a pinch.
Also, Nelson has been talking about things that “revive” us at camp — those things that still push camp forward but give staff a break from direct service and help fill their buckets back up. Things like sorting the mail, writing out the rules for the evening activity, setting up the evening activity, sweeping, etc. Can you find out what simple tasks around camp revive your staff and schedule them for some of those throughout the summer?
7. Continue building connections
Camps are SO great at building community during staff training. We plan out super fun activities for staff, schedule teambuilders, break them into different discussion groups, etc. We continue doing that for campers all through the summer, but a lot of us stop there with staff. Humans are social beings, and community is critical for us to thrive (NAMI, 2019). Camps do community SO WELL, so let’s keep it up for our staff throughout the summer! Some ideas:
Use more games, teambuilders, and sharing during staff meetings and in-services
Do “secret buddies,” assigning each staff member someone to secretly show love/connection to during the week (but be mindful of anything that requires spending money or makes people feel like they need to spend money)
Assign staff to “Ohana Groups” for a few weeks at a time and give the group time to talk and do fun things together
Ohana Groups come from Camp Dayspring in Florida. They assign campers to small groups, and these small groups meet each day to discuss different things and build deeper connections. Here, we’ve applied this idea to our staff.
Hang question posters (like funny camper quotes, favorite moments, etc.) in shared spaces and encourage staff to share non-verbally
Ask some leadership team or key staff members to be on the lookout for people who seem left out during time off (and consider this when assigning time off)
8. Share a list of mental health resources
Find a website that has great mental health resources you think may be good for staff (like this one from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing) and make sure your staff have access to it. Hang a poster with a QR code linking to it in your office, staff lounge, walk-in cooler (kidding… kind of?), or anywhere else that staff may go often or go when they need a minute. Make stickers of a QR code to go on the back of the staff clipboards, nametags, etc. Put it in your team Slack/GroupMe. Share it, share it, share it!
P.S. Super random, but what other links do your staff need a lot? Your payroll app, a digital version of your staff manual, your email address, etc.? Make a Google Doc or Sheet with links to all of these things and make a separate QR code that links to that (but keep them separate so the mental health resources go straight to the right page!).