Collins Dictionary announced earlier this week that “lockdown
” was its Word of the Year for 2020. I was surprised. I thought that the word of the year should be “resilience.”
I suppose that there is some logic to this decision. We have all experienced at least one lockdown in 2020, but perhaps not everyone has experienced resilience well during the pandemic.Morneau Shepell’s October 2020 Mental Health Index™ Report
found that while Canadians’ mental health improved modestly from May though July, there was a decline in August, a slight improvement in September and another decline in October. People indicated that they were more stressed in October than they were in the previous three months.
Resilience (or sometimes “resiliency”) is our ability to bounce back from adversity, and 2020 has been a year of adversity. Our patience, creativity and stick-to-it-iveness have all been tested. There are times when we would all like to roll up into a ball and sleep for a year, but so far most of us are continuing to summon our inner reserves and facing the pandemic and now the 2 week short and sharp circuit breaker. These inner reserves, that allow us to recover from setbacks, are resilience.
We have done well in the nine months since the lockdown was imposed, although it may not always feel like it. We are continuing to get up every day and we are asking for help when we need it. But none of us have an infinite resilience reserve and we need to look at how to ensure that our resilience supply will last until the end of the pandemic, a dot on the horizon that continues to get further away.
As lawyers, we tend to approach problems by working hard until we tie up every loose end, as many hours as it takes. Preparation is the key to our success and preparation takes time, so we devote as much time as we can to solving the problems of our clients.
We mistakenly believe that we have enured our bodies and brain to hard work and long hours. We believe that we have conditioned ourselves to function well on few hours of sleep, and we are proud of the sacrifices we make in the name of our professionalism. We “tough it out” and we equate this toughness to success.
But what if we had it all wrong? What if we can’t condition ourselves to perform at a peak level the way we would train for a 10 K, by increasing the length of our workout until we are used to the high level of demand? And what if the answer to this flies in the face of everything we are used to, and it is also the key to resilience?
Let’s talk about recharging, or how we recover from prolonged periods of overwork that leaves us exhausted and depleted, because we don’t actually get stronger from working long hours but from what we do in our off-time.
When we are tired, our cognitive skills are poorer and we make more mistakes.
According to the CDC, sleep deprivation is commensurate with being impaired
Neuroscience and psychologist Matthew Walker explains the role that sleep plays in our physiological wellness in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
: when we sleep, our brains process memories from short-term storage into long-term storage, and we build neuroconnections which lead to wisdom, creativity and emotional intelligence. When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we suffer both in the short-term in terms of reduced functioning and run risks in the longer-term including dementia, cardiovascular issues and hypertension, anxiety and depression, and diabetes.
So, sacrificing sleep is a poor strategy. Current research states that we need at least 7, if not 8-9 hours, of sleep per night.
If we need 50-60 hours of sleep per week, and our billable hours target of 1800 hours plus our 4 week vacation entitlement means that we have to bill 37.5 hours per week, resulting in upwards of 50 hours per week at work, plus a couple of hours per day for eating and basic needs, we skimp on the only other activity we have, which is rest and relaxation, or our recharge time.
However, according to authors Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan
, resilient people are well-rested people, and we actually need two types of recovery to be resilient.
First, we need internal recovery periods: small breaks through the day where we shift our attention from our core work tasks. Think coffee breaks—they are often more about getting up and walking around, perhaps chatting with someone, than they are about actually needing or wanting more liquid caffeine.
But we also need external recovery time, what we do in our evenings and on weekends that we enjoy. We need our vacations, but many of us fail to take our full vacation allotment. Many of us are insecure overachievers, where working long hours is how we compensate for feeling that we need to do more in order to be valued: https://hbr.org/2018/02/if-youre-so-successful-why-are-you-still-working-70-hours-a-week
Turning off from work is part of this recovery, but not all of us are good at it. Sometimes even when we leave work at a reasonable hour, we check our email and we can’t stop thinking about work issues.
Achor and Gielan cite research that says we check our phones about 150 times per day. If each phone check takes one minute (some will be more and some will be less), this adds up to 2.5 hours every day! This is happening during our workdays as well as during our downtime, but we are constantly interrupting our recharging which may reduce its quality.
Many of us also struggle to turn work off in our downtime—we continue to think about work issues, sometimes ruminating—when our brains need to be recovering from a high arousal state. And some of us manage to turn off work, but instead get caught up in intense media coverage of world events. No surprise that when we turn the lights out, we don’t instantly fall asleep.
Lawyers work hard and some of us are workaholics. Workaholics who enjoy their work have fewer negative health outcomes than workaholics who dislike their work and people who merely work long hours, and people who work long hours who do not obsess about work had fewer metabolic risks than people who worked long hours and obsessed about it (https://hbr.org/2018/03/how-being-a-workaholic-differs-from-working-long-hours-and-why-that-matters-for-your-health
You may be the only person who can truly assess whether you are a workaholic as opposed to a hard-worker. Similarly, you know whether you are able to turn off when you exit your workday (whatever that means in the remote work era.)
However, recharging is something we all need to do and, given the state of the world right now, a conscious strategy may be called for.
Here are some suggestions for developing a conscious recharging strategy:
And as we enter the latest mini-lockdown, let’s remember that we got through a longer, harsher one in the spring and that we will get through this one if we recharge and build our resilience.