There’s nothing worse than being sick at camp, right?
Ok, there are probably worse things in the scheme of things but being sick when you’re away from home and have a lot of responsibility is high up there on the list of things that suck.
As a director or leadership staff member, how do you manage staff who are sick, and what do you do when YOU get sick??
I remember the first time I got sick at camp, it was my first summer as a counsellor and in those days we used to have each cabin counsellor sleep in their cabin on a rotating schedule. It was my night, so I was in the cabin with about 10 campers, when I woke up just after dawn and felt SO SICK. I tried not to move, because I was afraid of what would happen, but it was no use… we didn’t have bathrooms in our cabins so I ran for the deck where I found an empty plastic shopping bag and, well, you know.
I made my way back to the bed and hoped for the best, no such luck. Within minutes I was running for the deck again.
I realized this couldn’t go on, so after I woke up the counsellor in the cabin next door, asked them to cover for me for a few minutes then went to the counsellors quarters to ask my co-staff to head over to the cabin to cover for me.
(Ok first I may have made a pit stop at the bathroom… guys, I was REALLY sick)
I realized that even though I was much closer to the bathroom I couldn’t very well sleep in my top bunk, so I dragged my sleeping bag onto the floor and laid down outside the bathroom. My director found me there about an hour later and found a bottom bunk for me to use, then gave me some Gravol – I wasn’t used to taking it so it knocked me out until after dinner that night.
My camp director woke me up after dinner to check on me, and sat on the edge of the bed to fill me in on the days events (it had been a wild day that included a sudden wind storm, a rogue canoe, and daring rescue of said canoe).
Being that sick at camp was SUCH a terrible experience, but because my camp director had made me feel cared about (and missed) it made it a little more bearable. So I always try to do the same for my staff.
So, as a camp director, here’s what I do when my staff get sick.
Take your water/ bleach solution and disinfect all of the germy places that your sick staff may have been touching, that don’t normally get the disinfecting TLC they need.
Fridge & microwave handles (and buttons)
Coffee pot handles (if your camp is anything like mine, this is a popular item)
Arms of chairs (non fabric)
Make sure that your staff know (in advance) that this is your first response to anyone being sick, and that you’re communicating with them that everything is still ok.
Seeing you bopping around camp with your water/ bleach spray bottle and rubber gloves should be business as usual, and not something they’re going to freak out about.
The grapevine is a very noisy place at camp, and if you’re not keeping them updated they’re going to jump to conclusions.
Their natural response will be to overreact and be dramatic if you’re not keeping them in the loop. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than trying to deal with rumours of a plague when you’re busy dealing with a few sick staff members and a germ filled facility.
If more than one person gets sick (or if one person is really sick) make sure you have a conversation with your nurse. Hopefully your staff would have already let your nurse know that they’re unwell, but you should follow-up.
Have your nurse track symptoms, and if it’s a stomach flu, they may want to make note of the air temperature, and fridge/ freezer temps too. Because if more people get sick and you don’t know why, these are going to be some of the questions asked if you have to call public health.
Downplay any illness among staff because whether or not it’s physically contagious, sometimes illness can be psychologically contagious. Some people are more prone to suggestion than others so they’ll start to *feel* sick if someone else is, even if they’re physically fine.
Others are just dramatic.
In my experience there are three reasons why staff feel sick at camp:
- They’re actually physically sick, their body is unwell (caused by a variety of reasons)
- They’re impressionable, the mere suggestion that someone else is experiencing certain symptoms is enough to make them feel like they have that too
- They’re faking it. Either they want attention, or they want time off.
How do you respond to these scenarios?
If someone is legitimately sick, there are a few ways you can respond depending on a few different factors, like location, severity of symptoms, and resources available.
If they’re really far from home, you can either send them to bed, send them to your heath centre, send them to “quarantine” (depending on how sick they are) or send them to the hospital.
If they’re close to home (within an hours drive) send them home until they’re feeling better.
It’s not real!
Unfortunately, sometimes staff are just experiencing psychosomatic symptoms or they use the excuse that they’re *cough cough* sick to get some time off, so I have some ways that I respond to that too.
I trust my staff, and I always try to err on the side of believing others (because really, we have no idea what’s going on in someone else’s body!), so my first step is to take their word for it, send them to bed and check on them as the day goes on.
For the most part this works, once they’ve had a little nap they realize that they’re not as sick as they thought they were, and they start to feel guilty about not being with their campers.
If it continues past a day, I usually give them the option of going home or going to a hospital. Sometimes, if they’re one of the ones who just wanted some rest, ‘calling their bluff’ is enough, and they suddenly feel better.
What if they’re really sick, but want to keep working?
I’ve had this happen a bunch of times, because camp staff are dedicated and want to ‘power through’ or ‘suck it up’, but I try to promote self-care to my staff.
I’ve worked with a lot of type ‘A’ people over the years, who are always pushing themselves, and consider any kind of illness a failure or defeat.
So I, again, give them some options, I flip the script a little bit, so it’s not about THEM (because trust me, it’s really hard to convince a type ‘A’ that something they consider a ‘failure’ is still ok!!).
I explain to them that by them ‘powering through’ and going back to the cabin they have the potential to spread their illness to other campers and staff – that makes them pause.
I might also remind them what a valuable team member they are – and add that in order to feel better, they need to rest, and that I can’t have them return to work until they’re well… so they’d better hurry up and get rested so they can come back as soon as possible because I need them.
See what I did there?
I totally played up on the competitive type ‘A’ personality and turned healing into a challenge that they can conquer. Know your audience, my friends.
AND last but not least, if they’re really determined to work, and the nurse and on call doctor say that they’re ok to work, I might hand em a face mask, encourage them to draw an animal face on it, and get back out there. Then check on them from time to time to see how they’re feeling.
And of course, I always, always, always, remind people to wash their hands!!
Check out this handy-dandy poster from the WHO.
(The organization, not the band.)
ps. Don’t worry about your type B staff insisting that they have to work – if you tell them they should get some rest they’re likely to say “Yeah, you know what man, you’re totally right. That’ll do the trick. Imma take a nap.” At least, that would probably be my response if I was sick and someone told me to rest!! haha
What if too many of the staff are sick?
Staff are dropping like flies, the plague has hit your camp and you’re worried that if this keeps up, you won’t be able to maintain ratios.
Rewind just a sec.
Hopefully you’ve planned for this well in advance (if not, now’s the time!!) and have made arrangements for this exact scenario.
Talk to your board/ committee/ executive director/ co-owner, whoever makes decisions with you and brainstorm what you would do in the case of staff incapacitation.
The best solution would be to bring in some volunteers till your team can get back on their feet. Here are some suggestions of groups you could tap into:
- Board/ committee members
- Recent past staff/ volunteers
- Camper parents/ siblings
- LIT/ CIT’s
- Neighbouring camp(s)
- Local youth group
- Neighbours, if there are any houses or cottages near your camp
- Volunteer firefighters
The trick is to make arrangements with these groups in advance so you know you can call them at the drop of a hat and they’ll be able to organize and rally to help you out.
It will also give you lots of time to make sure all VSS/ criminal record checks are done.
Of the groups I mentioned, you might be thinking, “ummm… yeah, our board members aren’t going to play capture the flag in the lower field … sooo… how is that helpful?”
Well, yeah, you’re probably right (although, ya just never know!!!) BUT they can help supervise the game from the sidelines, they can help in the kitchen, or help manage campers in the dining hall, they can tidy up after programs, or bop around with the water/ bleach solution, they can help answer phones or make calls to parents about the situation.
Even if they just come in for a day or two while you’re making arrangements to have campers vacate the camp, it will help keep campers safe.
What if YOU get sick?
My suggestion to you would be to have a plan in place.
If you get really sick, break something, or are otherwise unavailable – make sure you know there’s someone on your team who can step in.
Be a role model for your staff. Self care is so important, and you will set the tone for your entire team, if they see you ‘sucking it up’ and ‘powering through’ they’ll feel like they have to do the same. That’s unfair to them, and super unhealthy AND it’s this type of thing that leads to burn out!!!
So, get some rest, seek medical help if you need to, and try not to feel the overwhelming sense of guilt that you’re in bed instead of running the camp (full disclosure – I haven’t mastered that last one yet. The guilt is real.)
And TRUST the person you’ve left in charge!!! Don’t check in on them a million times, but let them know you’re available if they need you.
And, as always, wash your hands.
Have you guys ever been sick at camp? Or had an illness break out among your staff?
I’d love to hear about how you managed it in the comment section below.
I’ve been so thankful that in my three years of being a director I personally haven’t had any serious injury or sickness! I’m generally a healthy person, but 9 weeks of camp provide plenty of time for anything to happen!
This past summer, however, we had one week where 5 or 6 campers got the stomach bug along with 3 or 4 of our counselors! Since we are a smaller camp (staff of about 30) losing just a few counselors was painful. Thankfully it was just a 24 hr bug and it gave a great opportunity for some assistant counselors to step up and show what they were worth! I made sure to check in not only with the sick person, but also spent a lot of time following up with the counselor and campers who were left short-handed because of this illness. I wanted to make sure they were physically healthy, but also that the counselor who was with the kids was doing well handling a cabin on their own.
Things worked out and I was grateful that only a few people got it and they all got over it quite quickly!