Adaptive Mental Health and Guiding

By: Shannon Walton, Redside Foundation

We all know it's better for businesses to keep employees than spend the time and money to attract new ones. Turnover is expensive, training takes time, and there is no guarantee that new guides will work out. Integrating new guides into a seasoned crew can have its own challenges.

How can you create a company culture that attracts excellent guides loyal to your outfit? While the answer is simple, it takes some work. The first step is to commit to prioritizing adaptive mental health for you and your company.

Adaptive mental health recognizes that mental health is everchanging and that all feelings matter. Feelings aren't static; sometimes, a simple acknowledgment is all it takes. However, if you are willing to craft a company value of supporting adaptive mental health, there are a few accessible components to focus on.


Photo Credit: Aaron Beck

Help your guides maintain adaptive mental health 

  • Strong Community is a cornerstone of sound mental health. Recognize your guides as people with complicated lives and encourage them to see each other beyond their guide personalities. Foster an environment where they can reach out to each other even in the off-season. Guiding is a performative job, and when we are performing, we aren't belonging to the group. Establishing a strong sense of Community can make a huge difference.

  • Communication sets the tone and the culture of your outfit. Model and encourage strength-based communication by focusing on the person and not the circumstance by using first person, curiosity based-language. For example, instead of asking, "How did you burn the bacon?" try asking, "Are you worried about something? You seem distracted."

    Strength-based communication also focuses on the person's contributions and aspirations, not their challenges. It also recognizes that we all face obstacles and need support occasionally. When using this communication style successfully, you can empower others by representing them positively using people-first language. It helps to use factual information and use gender-neutral or personally preferred pronouns. Communicating this way focuses on what we all need to be successful.

  • Have a sense of purpose as a company that your employees are in on. Find a common why.

  • Encourage your guides to have good sleep hygiene. There are numerous studies citing the health benefits of sleep and rest. Good sleep hygiene can improve our productivity, mental and physical well-being, and overall quality of life. It goes a long way to mitigating the adverse effects of stress and can keep burnout at bay.

  • Promote self-acceptance and personal growth. Many guides are scared to death to admit what they don't know. Guides who have been in the game for years but maybe have yet to see a big high-water season or consistent high avalanche danger often have increased stress because they think it might show a weakness that they don't know how to deal with these situations. For example, if a rafting guide flips, use strength-based communication to focus on their incredible recovery. This will go a long way toward your whole crew having a healthier sense of self.

Helping your guides maintain adaptive mental health is what builds a resilient crew. A resilient crew will have each other's backs (and yours), be less susceptible to negative aspects of stress, and will feel like they are an intrinsic part of your outfit.

Once you've established a company value of supporting adaptive mental health, there are a few other things you can do to create a sense of belonging and allow your guides to grow with your company:


Create a Culture of Belonging

  • Offer a greater sense of control for your guides. There is a LOT that is out of a guide's command; whatever you can do to offer a great sense of control gives your guides a sense of support. Could you communicate your plan for what happens when things out of your control such as closures, cancellations, or weather events? Let your guides know that contingencies are in place.

  • Allow your guides to give you feedback. Genuinely take their observations and experiences to heart. Trust and loyalty are two-way streets. Create an employee feedback form that your crew can fill out at various times of the year. Your guides will help you perfect your business and feel a sense of pride.

  • Offer your guides something that shows you are invested in them. Do you offer housing or a safe and healthy place for guides to be in between trips? Laundry service? A financial incentive?

  • Build robust support systems. This is the most important thing you can do to build a team to strengthen your outfit. Support your guides in getting pre-incident education and training by sharing respected certification courses and providing some financial support to take them if you can. Train your guides on the available on-scene support services, such as life-flight landing zone training.

    A considerable part of building robust support systems is the debrief and feedback. Taking the time to debrief the day, the week, the season, or the incident allows everyone to grow and connect. Discovering what went right and wrong and what could be improved upon allows everyone to be heard and to get better as professionals and humans. Give your guides constructive feedback compiled from your personal observations, client feedback forms, and co-workers. Ensure your guides don't leave the season without a debrief and a plan for the coming year.

    Offer company-wide resilience training. Check out The Responder Alliance and The Community Resilience Model for ideas of what could be best for your employees. Both are wonderful. Start using the Stress Continuum with your crew.

  • Acknowledge that all feelings are valid. Don't let unacknowledged issues become huge complex problems that can lead to trauma.

  • Demonstrate and encourage gratitude and compassion. It's scientifically proven that even the simplest of gratitude practices can positively affect mental health, sleep, and self-esteem.

And finally, make sure you also have a robust support system outside of your guides. Encouraging adaptive mental health in a community that has traditionally swallowed their feelings can feel like a lot. You deserve support, too.

About the author

Shannon Walton is the Executive Director of The Redside Foundation, an Idaho-based nonprofit that has been called the leading voice in guide health. She is a retired guide, a proponent of kindness, and a perpetual student. When she’s not at home in Boise, Idaho with her husband and dog called Olive, you can find her exploring wild places including public lands and grocery stores.


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