Clearly, the COVID-19 crisis and impact it would have on frontline health workers were not on Stephen Legault’s mind when writing Taking a Break From Saving the World: A Conservation Activist’s Journey from Burnout to Balance.
But, as with many things, the strange reality we find ourselves in seems to have added another layer of timeliness to Legault’s book.
“I have a friend in New York City who I was talking to about some business stuff,” said Legault, in an interview from his home in Canmore. “We were talking about what they are seeing in their health-care profession in the States. The governor was making this plea for health-care workers from anywhere in the United States to go to New York City. Health-care workers are working 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. That can’t last long. Those people’s stamina will almost certainly give out before the pandemic does.”
Legault realizes there are major differences between burnout caused by the frantic, nonstop heroism that our frontline health workers are currently exhibiting and the fatigue that can set in over the long term for those working tirelessly in conservation.
But some lessons can be learned in both scenarios.
“What I’m hoping is that by talking about this from my own perspective now, people will be thinking ‘OK, we’re in this for three, four, six months, a year — if that’s the case and we don’t know when this will be over — we really need to think about making sure our service providers take time and recuperate and don’t burn out or worse during the pandemic,” he says.
Taking a Break From Saving the World was written from the point of view of someone who has suffered long-term burnout on many occasions over his professional life working in conservation. So Legault admits he can’t speak to the personal and institutional challenges that come with the health-care profession. But among those who reviewed his book before publication was Cam Westhead, a former MLA for Banff-Cochrane and an operating room nurse. He said he thought it was quite applicable to the plight of frontline health workers as well.
An avid paddler, the metaphor of finding time to “eddy out” — which is when paddlers take time to rest in calm waters while scouting downriver — Legault came up with a recipe of what do to when “staring burnout in the face.”
“How do you avoid getting there in the first place and what do you do if you do burn out and find yourself in a situation where you have to quit or take a leave of absence or, in the worst-case scenario, your struggles lead you to being dismissed,” he says. “I look at all three of those scenarios and give what I think is fairly common-sense and practical advice on each of those.”
On a personal level, that includes techniques — including a recognition of your limits, fitness and diet and meditation — to deal with the anxiety that comes from or leads to burnout, but also broader suggestions to organizations about structural changes such as leave-of-absence and other policies.
None of which, of course, will make saving the world any easier or erase the drop-in-the-ocean feeling that can overwhelm conversationalists and frontline health-care workers alike. But it does offer a bit of a roadmap for balance.
“I like to build stuff with my hands,” says Legault. “I love carpentry and woodworking. Even the last couple of weeks with my 14-year-old we’ve been doing something we haven’t done in years, which is playing with LEGO. It’s just so satisfying because you know when you’re done. In the conservation movement, in the climate change movement, if you’re fighting poverty or homelessness, you’re never really done and the goalposts are constantly moving. So you never feel like you can let your guard down.”
Taking a Break From Saving the World (Rocky Mountain Books, 168 Pages) will be available on April 10. Visit rmbooks.com.