Welcome to September. People who chose to take summer vacations are back, children have returned to school in many regions, and the number of COVID cases is climbing. Today, the province has announced new restrictions, reintroduced masking and offered cash inducements for the unvaccinated. Sigh.
I hope that you had a wonderful summer and that you were able to refresh and renew yourself.
September usually brings a return to structure and schedules. Kids’ sports leagues and professional development programs kick off. This year, many of us also face the return to our traditional work environment, subject to change as the fourth wave breaks across our province and the government is backing off from its laissez-faire approach to reopening. We honestly don’t know what to expect. For those who are returning to their pre-COVID workplaces, this isn’t going to be the triumphant reclaiming of our downtowns. Many are fearful about returning, and many others will be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The pandemic has tried our patience and our resilience, and it isn’t over yet. Some of us are immune-compromised or have an immune-compromised person in our families. Parents are worried about what will happen if their child, or a child in their child’s cohort, tests positive. There will be upheavals as we figure out how to manage this new phase of living with COVID.
This summer, one of my fully vaccinated sons tested positive for COVID. He had his second vaccination three weeks before being exposed and felt close to invincible. We were shocked and apprehensive when he developed symptoms followed by a positive test. The good news is that he just had a sore throat and what he called “mild flu-like symptoms” for five or six days. None of the friends he was out with got it, nor did his roommate, and nor did anyone else in our family.
Now that I have experienced a fully vaccinated family member getting COVID, I am much calmer, and yesterday, when my hair stylist called to say that a client of hers had tested positive, that she was waiting for her own test results, and asked if I was willing to come in for my appointment if we both wore masks, I felt comfortable keeping my appointment. All but two of her clients cancelled, and today she received a negative test result.
Those of us who are fully vaccinated are still going to be on a roller coaster ride this fall, but the peaks and valleys may be a bit more moderate. How do we preserve, and potentially enhance, our coping skills and resilience?
This summer, I thoroughly enjoyed the Olympics—not only the events themselves but the athletes’ stories. A wealth of wisdom abounds, but one was especially meaningful to me as we are feeling worn down from twenty months of pandemic living. It is about surge capacity.
We have all heard references to surge capacity early in the pandemic in the context of ERs and ICUs, but it is also used in the context of well-being, as in being strong and well so that you can cope when life throws you a curve ball. But the best way to understand surge capacity, something we may need this fall, is to look at my favourite Olympic moment (and apologies to our wonderful Canadian athletes who gave inspirational performances that I just loved.)
I had never heard of Netherlands middle- and long-distance runner Safin Hassan, but I was watching the qualifying heats for the women’s 1500 metres and heard the commentators talking about her goal of winning three gold medals, in the 1500 metres, the 5000 metres and the 10,000 metres, truly a daunting goal.
So, I focused on her as the runner I was going to watch since there weren’t any Canadians in the heat. She was running with pack for the first three laps, and when the bell sounded to indicate the final lap (the final 400 metres), a runner crossed too closely in front of another runner who fell, taking Ms. Hassan with her. “There goes the three-medal hope,” I thought, looking at her pulling herself up off the track and starting to run. It was hard to tell how far back she was from the pack as she started to run, and I thought, “good for her—she has spunk, even though she doesn’t have a chance.”
But she wasn’t just running the final 400, she was all-out sprinting and was making substantial gains on the pack of runners ahead of her. And I thought “good for her—she is giving it her best effort. She will feel better about what happened if she makes a decent showing.”
And then she started passing the runners in in the pack, and sprinting on the outside, she pushed past the front runners and won the heat, after having been knocked to the ground! If you didn’t see it, or have forgotten it, click here to see her amazing run
She went on to win two gold medals (in the 5000 and 10,000 metres) and the bronze in the 1500. Not a bad haul for someone who had a catastrophic mishap.
She became one of my life heroes because when life dealt her a bad blow, she got up and ran her heart out. Clearly, she trained very effectively, so that she had enough capacity for an extra spurt, even though she probably hadn’t consciously trained for sprinting the final 400 metres in a 1500 metre race. She had surge capacity.
My question for all of us this September is are we living our lives to build surge capacity, and if we aren’t, what can we do to?
Sports analogies can be overdone, but please bear with me. Safin Hassan trained according to a carefully designed regimen to increase her endurance and speed. No doubt she cross-trained, not just focusing on running. And she would have followed a nutrition protocol designed to enhance her performance. Not only was she able to compete is a series of three races with qualifying heats and semi-finals, she was able to draw on an untested capacity to sprint the final 400 metres of a race, against other athletes who also followed carefully designed training and nutrition regimens. She was able to reach deep and pull out the performance of a lifetime when she needed it.
As lawyers, we are high-performance professionals and I think most of us have had to draw on our inner strength at times. I don’t need to tell any stories—we have all been there or watched someone who is already feeling the stress of a demanding practice, challenging files and life in general have a file blow up. We get through it, but what happens when we have a series of setbacks at work or in our personal lives?
And do we train ourselves so that we are at our best for dealing with left curves in the final stretch of grueling projects?
I have never seen training protocols or nutrition regimens designed to help lawyers work long days seven days per week. Some lawyers believe that they have trained their bodies to function on four or five hours of sleep per night, but there doesn’t appear to be any science behind this. In fact, research on brain performance suggests that our cognitive functions become impaired at 17 to 19 hours without sleep, about the equivalent of having a blood alcohol reading of 0.05 and deteriorates quickly after that (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1739867/). So much for all-nighters as a strategy!
I knew a lawyer who parked a trailer in the parkade under his building, and when he was working on a deal and wanted to make the most of the 24 hours in a day, he merely had to take the elevator down to his crash pad. And when I worked on corporate deals in the early years of my career, I usually missed lunch and then ate Yoplait and cheezies from the commissary on the main floor at 3 pm in the vague belief that there must be some protein in at least one of them, somewhere.
We get by with inadequate sleep and poor nutrition—but there is no evidence that this sets up for success or that it allows us to find the extra gear after one crisis too many, having a metaphorical fall on the track in an Olympic qualifying race.
In fact, this pattern leads squarely to burnout, which can be described as a disparity between resources and demands. You just don’t have enough resources to go around. Burnout is the antithesis to surge capacity, so if we want to build capacity to get through a challenging fall, let’s think about how we can nurture our resources and perhaps even develop that extra gear.
Overhauling our entire lives and lifestyles is daunting, if not all out frightening, especially in the context of being in month 20 of a pandemic wasn’t enough on its own. So don’t feel overwhelmed. Let’s start with choosing to do one thing that will make us more resistant to burnout, being resilient, which can equip us with surge capacity when needed.
You can learn more about burnout
and building resilience
on Assist’s website, but I would like to highlight one excellent resource with 10 tips courtesy of the CBA
The ten tips are:
- Getting enough sleep—commit to trying to get 7 to 8 hours per night.
- Exercise often
- Engage with your social support community (i.e., hang out with your friends!)
- Participate in activities you enjoy
- Take your vacation time
- Find ways of gaining control and recognizing that you have taken control over matters within you control (e.g., turning off all notifications so you can focus on one matter at a time)
- Learn and use problem-focused coping strategies, like making a to-do list and sticking with it, rather than emotion-based coping (blaming people, ruminating without doing anything)
- Be flexible about how to approach a problem rather than locking into one way of proceeding
- Manage your workload through delegation and ask for help when you need it.
- Create short-term goals that you can monitor and achieve. Checking things off on a to-do list helps build motivation, reduce worry, and give you a sense of accomplishment.
Choose one strategy and reinforce it in your life this September. And once you incorporate that strategy, consider choosing another one to work on for October.
And whatever you choose to do, remember that you don’t have to do it alone—Assist has a community of lawyers who are trying to improve their well-being and perhaps even build surge capacity, and you are always welcome to hang out with us and share strategies at our community groups like Red Mug Coffee Circles and Parents Practicing Law. Remember that we are happy to create new groups to help lawyers and students deal with common issues like avoiding burnout.