An open letter to camp directors about what nurses really want in a camp employer.
Dear Camp Director or hiring manager,
For many years, I have had the pleasure of being a camp nurse in a variety of settings. After an extensive job hunt, I was quite lucky to find an excellent camp and spend many years there. Life circumstances then sent me to work for another organization that was not so great to work for. However, this is not about a particular camp; it’s the combination of my experience as a current, former, and prospective camp nurse. This letter doesn’t so much focus on nursing practice and logistics, it's more about work environment and management. I want you, as camp directors, to get the feedback that you often do not get from employees who don’t accept offers or don’t return after a summer.
I know camp nurses are some of most difficult employees for summer camps of all varieties to recruit and retain. I have observed somewhat of a disconnect between camp directors and prospective camp nurse expectations over the years. I believe that many camp directors don’t understand why they find many applicants but few employees, or have few to no returners year after year.
Most nurses view nursing as a job, not a calling. They have expectations about work life balance and want to be treated like the professionals that they are. I know every camp has a super nurse who works around the clock for little money and would live in a shed if you asked them. These are the nurses who are passionate about your camp and camp nursing, they are statistical outliers. Do not expect to find more than one of them in a lifetime; they are the truly devoted. There are a few things that most nurses need to be attracted to camp jobs and to wish to return next season. Here are five of them.
Pay. I realize that camp pay is generally low, but nurses are not college students who live with their parents. They have a mortgage, a car payment, and health insurance to cover. Many of the camps I applied to came in with offers so low that I would have to go into debt for the pleasure of working there. Nurses do not, and should not, expect to make the equivalent of their earning power outside of camp; but they do need more money than the average camp employee. If your camp isn’t paying $700-$800 a week, most nurses cannot afford to work for you. If you’re not paying a living wage, your pool of applicants quickly shrinks to those with very limited life situations or limited other employment opportunities.
Schedule. I am well aware that everyone at camp works around the clock to make the magic happen. Camp is a marathon of sleepless nights, early mornings and action packed days; and most staff love it. Nurses, however, generally don’t expect to be on duty for more than 12 hours at a time. I know what you're thinking right now is “so nurses want more pay for less work” and the answer to that question is yes! Nurses will generally expect similar working schedules to those they get at home. It’s not that nurses are lazy, we are coached to achieve a good work life balance to avoid burnout. Also nursing tasks are mentally taxing; there are many decisions and tasks that we apply the nursing process to in a shift and tired nurses make bad decisions and mistakes. Studies have suggested that nurses working 12 or more hours are three times as likely to make an error. Working nurses around the clock, except for an emergency, is a recipe for unhappy or non returning nurses.
Support. Nurses want respect; we have education and background that may differ from yours, so please do not dismiss our concerns and opinions. We really expect to be supported by management. If we ask for it, we really do need it. If we tell you it’s not safe, don’t steam roll over us. We want to collaborate on tough problems that involve camper health, not be instructed on how to handle a health/wellness situation from a non healthcare provider. Everything from help dealing with parents, to getting information from other departments, and finding campers who are missing medications and treatments are really hard if management isn’t checking in and seeing if we can be helped. A lack of support make the nurses feel unwelcomed and unappreciated. Make visiting the health office a priority and be responsive to the needs of the nurses, even if they seem mundane.
Lodging. I do not camp in a tent, nor do I have a roommate or share a bathroom in my house. I do not expect to do these things at work. That includes camp. Again, you’re hiring professionals who want reasonable accommodations. I know that everyone else on camp shares bathrooms, bunks, and other accommodations; but none of them are nurses. As a rule, nurses should be accommodated in the same manner as your middle to upper management levels. At the very least nurses should have the option to be away from the younger, wilder camp staffers. No matter how enjoyable working at camp is, if nurses cannot sleep and rest they will not achieve that lovely work/life balance they crave, and will not be likely to return. Be upfront in discussing accommodations with prospective nurses; they will feel betrayed if the accommodations they find are not what they were promised.
Perks. Nurses are very much influenced by perks and other non monetary compensation. The ability to tag along on a camp trip that interests them, have a child enrolled in camp, or even just have access to a camp vehicle so they can get off camp and explore a little are great ways to have staff feel appreciated without breaking the bank. A perk that I have found especially helpful has been nannies for children who are not old enough for camp programs; and offering spouses positions or lodging on camp as part of the nurses employment. Being creative with side benefits can make nurses more likely to return and especially childcare can keep nurses in camp when their families are young. Anything you can do to sweeten the deal will absolutely be well received by potential and returning nurses. If nothing else, a sincere in person thank you for a good season or hard work is really appreciated.
I know that most camp directors do understand the needs and wants of nurses, if you read through this and were wondering why someone took the time to write such basic information, then you get it. However, I could write a book about places that don’t pay, respect, house, or appreciate their nurses. I promise that if your camp takes steps to accommodate and appreciate nurses, then they will be successful in attracting quality nurses that will want to return. Remember even if they don't return, if they had a good experience, happy nurses will often end up being your best advertisement to the nursing community.
Wishing you all a happy and healthy summer,
Alex "Campfire Nurse" Egan LPN
All opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent those of my employer. Remember anyone can pretend to be anyone on the internet, so please verify all information presented. NEVER take advice from strangers.