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Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton on Friday March 20, 2020. Dr. Hinshaw delegated the important task of updating a worried population to her deputy, Marcia Johnson.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Stephen Legault is a political and communications strategist, and an author. His most recent book, Take a Break from Saving the World, will be released in April.

What can people working to stop the spread of COVID-19 learn from Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Deena Hinshaw? Besides how to provide a calm, steady and reassuring voice in a time of global crisis, we can learn how to take care of ourselves when we’re trying to save the world.

During her daily briefing last Friday, Dr. Hinshaw told the province she would take “some time off,” and delegated the important task of updating a worried population to her deputy, Marcia Johnson. She indicated this was part of her self-care practice. In the middle of the worst global pandemic in 100 years, she made time to rejuvenate and brace for the challenging days ahead.

A few months ago, when I was preparing for the release of my book, the global pandemic that has changed every aspect of life wasn’t on our radar screens. For me, saving the world meant my life-long work protecting nature. I’d been working on cause-based efforts for 30 years, had burnt out a couple of times, been fired from my dream job, and was set adrift trying to renew my purpose and restore balance to my life.

The title of my book, Taking a Break from Saving the World, has a much more literal meaning now as health care workers, first responders, medical researchers, and long-haul truck drivers, grocery store clerks and delivery people race to keep our communities healthy amid the impact of COVID-19.

As the world works to slow the pandemic that will re-define human communities and economies, and that may cost hundreds of thousands of lives, how can we take care of the people who take care of us?

We should all learn from Dr. Hinshaw’s example. There is an important lesson here for all of the medical professionals, service providers, and community organizers working to keep our province healthy: Do not burn yourself out in the process. If you do, you can’t help, and we need you now more than ever.

As someone who has volunteered and worked in the conservation field since I was 16, I can’t stress enough how important this is. The work of saving the world isn’t just a vocation, it’s a calling – a purpose – and sometimes we mistake our dogmatic dedication to our cause for actual progress towards protecting what we love. For me, it meant failing to consider my own physical and mental health while struggling to protect wild Alberta. The cost of failing to balance my health and well-being with my work was nearly catastrophic.

We can’t afford that right now. Public health care workers, doctors, nurses, cleaning staff, and those supporting them must take a page from Dr. Hinshaw’s playbook and have a day or two off every few weeks. We need you to be fit and healthy and reasonably well-balanced for what lies ahead.

This goes for everybody working to support our essential services at this time of crisis. Suddenly the well-being of grocery store clerks – my 18-year old son is among them – is more important than the vaunted stars of the silver screen. It makes me wonder why it took a global pandemic to understand the value of people who supply our food?

We all have a role to play in helping those trying to save the world right now. Take care of the caregivers. Employers have an important obligation in this equation: Insist that our essential-services staff get time away from the front line. Make it possible for them to turn off their phones, step away from the computer screen with its torrent of dismal news, and enjoy their family, and the simple pleasures in life.

If you’re one of those we are counting on, please know that we support you. Treat yourself with care. Now is not the time to abandon important physical and mental-health practices. Meditate, do yoga, run, walk and exercise while practicing physical distancing. Eat well, sleep enough, connect with friends on Skype or Zoom. These things may seem like luxuries as we brace for the crush of patients, grocery deliveries and isolation orders to come, but they will help ensure we maintain some balance at a time when the world feels precarious and in perpetual crisis.

On social media, a common meme that is circulating shows a t-shirt with the now-familiar face of Dr. Hinshaw on it, and the words “What would Dr. Hinshaw do?”

She would take a short break while trying to save the world. For the sake of us all, you should too.

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