Ah, the human brain. Thanks to it, we’ve managed to outrun the sabertooth tigers that used to exacerbate our cortisol levels, only to encounter an entirely modern set of problems.
…But with the same old stress reaction. Our stressors have evolved, but our brains haven’t. (Though camp directors might tell you that the difference between a pack of tigers and a pack of 14-year-olds maybe isn’t as stark as we’d like to think!)
At any rate, workplace stress and responsibilities have a way of accumulating and bearing down on us, and if we’re not careful to protect our mental health, have harmful consequences. At their most extreme: burnout.
These consequences are especially dire for camp directors, where work weeks are long—read: 24/7—and require intense emotional connection and alertness to keep a whole camp running smoothly in the summer. And in the off-season? More full-time work to get ready for the next one.
That’s why it’s so important to prioritize self-care for camp directors. Who wants to be robbed of their creativity, motivation, and sometimes even their physical health by burnout?
Here are our best self-care tips for camp directors, straight from the pros, to help you make summer less stressful at camp. If you’re healthy and happy, you have a better shot of encouraging your campers and counselors to be, too!
1. Rejuvenate during the year
It’s important to use the off-season to get ready for the next summer, and that also means taking good care of yourself. This article covers the broad strokes of strategies to take care of yourself as a camp director, but you know you best. How do you like to recharge? Watching movies in your PJ’s, sketching at museums, working on your vintage teacup collection? Get specific and make time for self-care that really makes you tick.
2. Catch up on sleep
The off-season is perfect for hibernating sleeping. Every camp staffer knows that sleep can be hard to come by in the summer, which makes it even more important to catch up while you can.
The benefits of a well-rested brain have been studied and documented countless times. From clearer decision-making to a better mood, the benefits are there to be reaped. The even better news is that any sleep deficit you acquired last summer can be repaid to get you all rested up. Start catching z’s like you’re in the MLB and you’ll be able to prevent burnout before summer camp.
See more of the science on how to catch up on catching z’s with this article from Harvard Health: https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/repaying-your-sleep-debt
3. Physical exercise
When your body works better, you work better. It’s as simple as that. This is one of the best habits of successful camp directors to help them avoid burnout. Make physical activity a mainstay of your self-care regimen, however it feels natural to you. Running, yoga, working out, wrangling two kids of your own? Perfect.
You’ll be repaid for your efforts with endorphins, lowered stress levels, and also better sleep. The ADAA reports that even just five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
4. Process last summer
Summers as a camp director are intense. If you try to simply set everything that happened aside and move on, you’re sure to run into some snags down the road. Be kind to yourself and take the time to reflect on last summer. Go through feedback and remember your highs and lows so that you can put it all to bed and move forward towards next summer.
If you’d like some structure, consider playing the classic recap game, “A rose, a bud, a thorn.” It’s a simple construct that lets you examine:
- A rose: What’s something amazing that happened? A “rose” is a big bloom of success and awesomeness, a high point of the summer.
- A bud: What’s something brimming with possibilities, that you’re really excited to see how it shakes out?
- A thorn: What was one of the biggest struggles of the summer? A thorn is one of the low points of your summer.
5. Confront your stressors
You can sleep all you want, and jog around the block, but one of the best ways to take care of yourself as camp director is to confront your stressors. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure, right?
- Understaffed and spread too thin? Take a look at your hiring plan and see where you can beef it up to set your mind at ease.
- Take a look at the programs you’re involved in… but maybe shouldn’t be leading. Take a step back—decide what your team can handle.
- Cut the programs that don’t work. (Sorry, underwater basket weaving. It was fun while it lasted.)
- Lastly, consider reducing the number of kids and amount of overhead if you need to.
6. Spend time with your loved ones
If you’re lucky, your partner might help you run camp. And you not only get to spend tons of time together, you’re a total summer camp power couple!
Otherwise, make sure to get enough time with your friends and family. Consider scheduling a getaway, setting a weekly dinner date/family extravaganza, and make time to catch up over coffee.
Time Magazine reports on a study that found “the strength of a person’s social circle—as measured by inbound and outbound cell phone activity—was a better predictor of self-reported stress, happiness and well-being levels than fitness tracker data on physical activity, heart rate and sleep.”
So if you had to throw away everything else in this article, keep this self-care tip close. (But your friends and family closer.)
7. Cut out alcohol during the summer
It’s a no-brainer for someone with so much responsibility 24/7 in the summer, but your body will thank you too. Cheers from your liver!
8. Make a plan for summer self care
You’re the head of the operation. If you take the time to plan out ways you can take care of yourself, everyone will benefit. Plan to go above and beyond: summers are more intense than the rest of the year, your self care routine should be, too.
Now, write it down. Seriously.
Try to be honest about what you can actually accomplish, and don’t set up plans so ambitious you end up guilting yourself. Self-care shouldn’t come with a dose of guilt. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do here, right?
Also, remember that your plan can be fluid and change based on what is working and what’s not. Think of your gameplan as a living document, something you can change at half-time if you need to.
9. Get the camp director “summer body”
We don’t mean anything to do with swimsuits. Come May, you should be feeling pretty hale and hearty for the summer ahead. Get mentally, physically, and emotionally ready as much as possible.
Mentally and emotionally, try to wrap up any personal conflicts if you can. Easier said than done; but, the more space you have for summer to be your main focus, the easier time you’ll have running camp.
Physically, kick it up a gear when summer is right around the corner. Maybe consider starting step #7, cutting out alcohol, sooner rather than later. It’s also a great idea to watch what you eat and make sure you include some healthy power foods in your diet.
10. Revisit your priorities
One of the quickest paths to burnout is when you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, or doing it for the wrong reasons. If you find yourself resistant to the start of summer and your long list of obligations, revisit what got you on this path in the first place.
If there’s any advice the pros can offer on what it’s like to be a camp director, it’s that directing is more of a lifestyle than a profession. But if you’re in it for the right reasons, and you love changing lives, then it is one of the most rewarding lifestyles out there.
11. Examine your personal satisfaction
What keeps you going as a camp director? Is it positive feedback from your campers and their families? Or maybe you love seeing kids experience incredible growth in the structure of independence that camp provides.
Think about what really excites you about directing, and make sure those moments are happening. On top of that, try to make the space to really appreciate these moments of affirmation and encouragement when they happen. If you’re too busy and stressed to appreciate them now, consider writing them down to preserve them for yourself.
12. Deal with issues when they arise
During the summer, a red flag for burnout is when you look for shortcuts to problems. It can be tempting to sweep problems under the rug, but then they just build up and the pressure only gets worse.
Broken equipment? Interpersonal conflicts? There’s no time like the present to solve problems, especially since most issues need just a slight adjustment for things to run smoothly. Future you will thank you, and your campers will too!
13. Know when to step back
As a director, all of the issues at camp have a way of coming back to you. But you can’t handle every conflict when you have hundreds of people at your camp. It just doesn’t make sense, mathematically.
So it’s important to take a step back, but keep your door open. Invest and trust in good training, and set a policy that encourages people to come get your help when they need it. By trying to find the right balance, you can protect your time and sanity while keeping the peace.
14. Waste some time
Just a little. After all, time you enjoy wasting isn’t a waste.
Carve out a day to do whatever you feel like. Including: nothing. It’s wonderful to focus on self-care, but sometimes the best strategy is to forget about all of that, how to be productive, how to take care of yourself…and just have a day. Tackle a completely unrelated project, clean out the garage, or head downtown for an adventure.
Leave the scientifically proven reasons for improving your mental health behind, and just go DO something. Conversely, it has the wonderful benefit of improving your mental health!
Ready, set, self-care!
Even if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Am I burning out as camp director?” camp directors will vouch that it’s an incredibly powerful, inspiring career. By creating self-care strategies that work for you, you’ll be able to give camp your all—and get so much back.
Running a summer camp is remarkable for its ability to enable you to see the impact you have on the kids and the staff: camp is life changing. By steering the ship, you help kids and young adults find themselves and find their passions. Directors help families grow with a new environment, providing resources and choices/independence to kids that might be new for them and their whole family. At the same time, you build a special community around your summer camp, allowing others to connect and flourish.
As if that didn’t make it all worth it, the appreciation and deep gratitude you’re shown from kids, staff, and parents on a near-daily basis makes for quite a reward.
While you’re putting so much time and effort into others, don’t forget to do the same for yourself. Go forth – and stay hydrated!