Mental Health and Parks and Recreation

May 23, 2024, Feature, by Allison Colman

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Five actionable steps agencies can take to support their staff

On December 7, 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., issued an advisory sounding the alarm on the mental health challenges experienced by young people. The advisory report noted that in 2019, 1 in 3 high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40 percent from 2009. In May 2023, the Surgeon General issued a second advisory report on loneliness and isolation, noting that before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, nearly half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Both reports called upon a whole of society response from individuals, governments, workplaces, health systems and community organizations to implement new approaches that prioritize mental health and social connection.

During this time of increased focus on our nation’s mental health, we often talk about the unique role that parks and recreation plays as “social infrastructure” and a vital condition for well-being. While it is critical for park and recreation systems to leverage their spaces and programs to foster connection and belonging across communities, some leaders are growing concerned that the emphasis on community well-being has taken precedence over the focus on the well-being of the park and recreation workforce. Phil Ginsburg, general manager of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, shares, “We talk a lot about the health benefits of parks. And for good reason — research has established that parks play a key role in a community’s mental health. They promote inclusion and access. They put people in touch with fresh air, nature and each other. As parks leaders, we have always been aware of the critical role parks and recreation [plays] in citizens’ happiness and well-being, and we’ve done a good job of spreading the message. But when it comes to our own teams, mental health hasn’t received the same attention.”

Park and recreation leaders like Ginsburg recognize that mental health affects everyone and that their staff, colleagues and team members increasingly are impacted by the growing mental health crisis. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 young people experience a mental health condition each year, and more than 8 million people provide care to an adult with a mental or emotional health issue. Park and recreation professionals are not exempt from these issues, with many leaders acknowledging that their workers also are impacted by public health and social challenges they confront in their daily professional roles — homelessness, gun violence, overdoses, civil unrest, mental health crises and climate change.

In cities across the country, including San Francisco, there is no shortage of trauma experienced by park and recreation workers. “The overdose crisis means gardeners and other park workers frequently find sick or dead people. 2023 was the deadliest year on record for San Francisco,” says Ginsburg. “More than 800 people died of accidental overdoses, some in our parks. That is in addition to people who die from suicide in our parks and the other painful situations we increasingly encounter, including homelessness, erratic behavior and assaults. On August 18, 2023, a masked person climbed the stairs to the second-floor gymnasium in the Mission Recreation Center, walked up to an 18-year-old as he played basketball with his friends, and shot him. Our recreation center staff found him mortally wounded and called 911. Our workers typically aren’t first responders, but they aren’t immune from job-related trauma and peril.”

Most leaders know they have an obvious duty to support their staff through trauma. Ginsburg acknowledges that the focus on mental health and well-being must go beyond these periods of distress and be a top priority year-round. “Though it wasn’t the first time gun violence has touched one of our facilities, it is thankfully rare. Much more common is simply the daily stress that compounds over time and the need for regular employee wellness efforts that value mental and emotional well-being as importantly as physical health,” he says.

NRPA President and CEO Kristine Stratton agrees: “Many have heard the airline instruction to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others with theirs. There is clear evidence that human beings can internalize the stressors and trauma around them, even vicariously through helping others who have experienced trauma. Our mission is dedicated to building a strong park and recreation field, and that hinges on healthy and resilient park and recreation professionals. If we don’t effectively support the health and well-being of our frontline staff, then their ability to support the health and well-being of their communities will be compromised. This can be a virtuous cycle if we are all committed to it.”

What Do Workers Need?

Leading health organizations and federal agencies agree that all workplaces have a major role to play in addressing the mental health crisis. According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2023 Work in America Survey, 92 percent of workers seek employers who invest in, value and prioritize staff mental health and well-being. Beth M. Schwartz, Ph.D., associate director for the Office of Applied Psychology at APA, shares, “Investment in the mental health of staff needs to be a priority. Workers want to work for an organization that values their psychological well-being, provides support for mental health and respects work-life boundaries.”

The survey found that while there have been many positive developments and trends related to workplace well-being over the past few years, improvements are needed. Lack of mental health supports remains a challenge, with respondents indicating that only 43 percent of employers offer health insurance coverage for mental health and substance use disorder, 29 percent of employers provide access to an employee assistance program (EAP), and only 12 percent of workplaces have people onsite who have received mental health training. Workplace stress remains at a concerning level, with 77 percent of workers experiencing work-related stress in the past month and 45 percent experiencing negative impacts because of that stress, including emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, a desire to keep to themselves and/or quit, and lower productivity.

The survey found that workplace stress and experiences differ across industry, demographic and other workplace factors — important considerations for park and recreation leaders who have staff serving in a wide variety of roles. People in customer-facing services were more likely than office workers to characterize their workplace as “toxic” (26 percent to 14 percent, respectively), in-person workers were more likely to report a toxic workplace than those fully remote, and women and people living with a disability were more likely to report a toxic workplace when compared to their counterparts. Twenty percent of workers, and higher rates of Black (23 percent) and Hispanic (22 percent) workers, reported feeling a lack of belonging in the workplace. Workers who identified as 44 years old and older, Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ reported higher rates of lacking support in the workplace compared to workers under age 43, white and non-LGBTQ+ workers.

Actions Park and Recreation Leaders Can Take

APA’s survey findings reinforce the need for leaders to take action to prioritize mental health in the workplace. The first-ever Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being released in 2022 provides a roadmap for how park and recreation leaders can take actionable steps. The framework calls upon workplaces to advance strategies that focus on five workplace essentials:

  1. Protection From Harm: Create the conditions for physical and psychological safety and job security. Review working conditions across all positions to ensure compliance with occupational health and safety standards; ensure adequate rest; model, communicate about and promote mental health services; provide healthcare coverage for mental health services; operationalize diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility norms, practices and policies.
  2. Connection and Community: Foster positive social interactions and relationships in the workplace to promote social support and belonging. Encourage behavior that promotes positive social relationships in the workplace while protecting against bias, discrimination and exclusion; establish clear and consistent communication; listen to workers’ concerns and explain why decisions are made; foster collaboration and teamwork.
  3. Work-Life Harmony: Ensure that workers can balance work and non-work demands. Allow for flexibility and autonomy over scope of work and how work is completed; make schedules predictable; increase access to paid medical and family leave; respect boundaries between work and non-work time.
  4. Mattering at Work: Ensure workers know that they matter, have a sense of purpose and meaning, and have dignity in their work. Provide a living wage; engage workers in workplace decisions; build a culture of gratitude and recognition; connect individual work to the organization’s mission and purpose.
  5. Opportunity for Growth: Promote equitable pathways for growth. Provide quality training, education and mentoring; ensure workers have the ability to learn new skills and knowledge, experience leadership opportunities, and contribute to an organization’s mission; ensure relevant and reciprocal feedback.

Schwartz recommends that leaders start with the strategies that work. “Less than a third of workers say that their employer offers an [EAP], and only 43 percent report that their employer offers health insurance with coverage for mental health. Many organizations can start with the basics — availability of resources and awareness of resources are the best places to start. To address the most common challenges, an organization should consider: (1) EAPs, which provide resources connected to mental health needs; (2) insurance coverage that provides access to mental health professionals like that offered for physical health; (3) adequate time-off policies; and (4) mental health days.” 

NRPA has taken steps to prioritize mental health in the workplace. Stratton shares, “Workplaces, through their benefits, culture, operations, communications and team building, can play a critically beneficial role in confronting the mental health crisis, especially in the context of social isolation. Workplaces offer connection, collaboration and shared purpose, which can serve as an antidote to the negative implications of disconnection and isolation. At NRPA, we approach this responsibility with even more intention, because we have been remote first since March 2020. Now that we no longer can rely upon casual in-office interactions, we are focused on creating opportunities for staff connection and collaboration. Interactive monthly staff meetings, interdepartmental working groups, social hours, virtual co-working time and a strong well-being-centered benefits package are a few of the commitments we have made. We are also proud to be striving for mental health excellence as part of the Mental Health in the Workplace commitment.”

Overcoming Obstacles

Normalizing mental health in the workplace is not an easy feat. Historically, society has struggled to place the same value on mental and emotional well-being as they have on physical health, largely due to the persistent stigma connected to mental health. Schwartz believes that park and recreation leaders can help to address the stigma. “[B]y making it clear that leadership prioritizes mental health and well-being, and by providing educational opportunities and training to all employees that focus on mental health as an essential part of overall well-being, an organization can help to dismantle the stigma that still exists toward those with mental health challenges and encourage employees to seek appropriate help when needed.”

A.C. Gonzalez, former city manager of Dallas and a strategic advisor to the Texas City Management Association and the International City Managers Association, agrees that local government leaders have a role to play in helping to overcome the stigma, guide their workforces and lead their communities. Changing practices and policies is one way to solidify and sustain this effort. “City leaders face these personal challenges, but more importantly, they can do something for themselves and the organizations they lead. As resource managers, we establish rules and procedures to properly maintain the physical assets of our organization. We establish rules by which personnel are required to take care of the tools, vehicles and facilities entrusted to them. Yet, we make little effort to establish maintenance requirements for our personal physical health and, as bad or worse, we do next to nothing to require maintenance of our brain. It [mental health] has not been normalized. And nothing gets normalized until change is introduced and becomes an expectation.”

Stratton agrees and encourages park and recreation leaders and key decision-makers to consider what they can do. “I love the Mr. Rogers quote, ‘Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.’ When he said this, he was talking about understanding and connecting with our feelings and talking with others about them. Overcoming stigma hinges on chipping away at shame and silence and making our mental health challenges and practices mentionable. Part of this can come from our leaders stepping up.”

Investing in workplace well-being not only benefits workers, but also it improves organizational culture and performance, and it is a must-do as leaders consider retention, productivity and recruitment of future workforce. Schwartz notes, “Without mental health and well-being support in place, an organization will likely find it more difficult to recruit the talent needed and more difficult to retain the talent needed for success. When workers are not satisfied with the mental health and well-being support, they are much more likely to be looking for a new job at a different organization. With effective mental health policies in place, workers are less likely to experience workplace burnout and, in turn, are less likely to experience emotional exhaustion, less likely to quit their job and more motivated to do their best on the job. Psychological science also illustrates that a psychologically safe workplace — one in which team members’ voices are welcomed without fear of retribution — leads to greater innovation and creativity. We also know that an organization can enhance well-being and performance and lower workplace burnout by building psychological capital, which includes a focus on hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism.”

Gonzalez believes this is a unique opportunity for park and recreation professionals to lead by example. “We are forever trying to do more with less. This is a good way to be at our best. We can serve as an example for the rest of the community and do better for ourselves and our loved ones,” says Gonzalez.

SEE ALSO: Reshape Your Workplace: Starting a Wellness Movement Through Affirmation, Voice and Choice, Daniel W. Hatcher, MPH, Parks & Recreation, February 2022, Vol. 57, Iss. 2.

Allison Colman is Senior Director of Programs at NRPA.