RIP Wallace: I never realised what a great stress-reliever you were until you’d gone

Experts agree on the therapeutic benefit of a pet dog if you’re working from home

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Of course, 2022 was a momentous year – politically, geopolitically, those great events live in the memory. Summits were held. Decisions were made. Scientific reports on the climate produced, discussed and sometimes ignored. Political careers went up and down. Family histories also changed. The exams a child passed to get to university. Retirement of a friend; the passing of a loved one; meetings, memories and discoveries. In my case, one negative memory was the passing earlier this year of our beloved dog, a Kerry blue terrier, 20 kilos of fun, called Wallace.

He had been our family companion for a dozen years. His passing led to a remarkable (for me at least) discovery. I decided Wallace was irreplaceable. (He is.) We would never have another dog. Ever. Except … around the time Wallace died I chaired a conference of high-powered lawyers. The final conference speaker described herself as a “burn-out consultant”.

She asked the lawyers present about their working patterns, especially how they coped during the coronavirus, working from home with all the deadlines of a highly paid job in which every detail of a contract or lawsuit mattered. The lawyers conceded working at times 70 or 80 hours a week and occasionally hitting 100 hours.

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I am following the burn out consultant’s rule of 120 minutes work and 20 minutes doing something else – in reverse

The consultant pointed out that in an office there is always some excuse for a coffee break or a chat with a colleague, the interruption of a phone call or an in-person meeting to break the tyranny of the screen. You are all facing burn-out if you work too hard, she said.

Then she got to the point. She said we should think of our brains as a muscle, and think of ourselves as athletes. No athlete could compete or even train 80 hours a week. Training, even for marathons, requires long recovery and rest periods, stretching, massage, cross-training, a sauna or shower and relaxation.

Her advice had many parts but one key rule was that no one should work on a screen for more than 90-120 minutes. Then we should all take a break of at least 20 minutes. This would improve our mental and physical health and make us actually work better.

As someone who writes books from home, this was revelatory. I realised that the passing of our dog had changed my work patterns from good to bad. Wallace would sit under my desk patiently then – like a canine “burn-out consultant” – every 90 to 120 minutes he would put his head on my leg and demand a walk or to be fed or for me to pay him some attention.

I came to realise that walking the dog several times a day, even in bad weather, solved two problems at once. It stopped the dog being bored, and it often stopped me being stuck with some difficult chapter of the book or feature I was writing. Half an hour being distracted in the fresh air meant problems often miraculously evaporated.

And that brings me to how we coped after Wallace died. If you have never owned a dog, it may seem incomprehensible but the grief is real. Our family gave away anything associated with Wallace that might still prove useful to other dog owning friends, and cleared away the rest.

We took a firm decision that we would never have a dog again. I consoled myself that at least I would not have to go out for long walks in the rain. But … it took just a few months until this Christmas we took delivery of a puppy. Actually, two puppies. The chaos surrounding me as I write is inescapable. We have chewed floorboards, a bit of chewed door, a couple of chewed chair legs, Christmas wrapping paper shredded and chaos everywhere.

Yet I believe the Esler household is immeasurably improved by these two bringers of chaos. And if I ever meet that “burn-out consultant” again, I will thank her for pointing out that there is more to life than work, and that sometimes being distracted from the job paradoxically may make it easier to complete the task. Distractions can make us happier and more productive.

The downside is that I have discovered I am following the burn-out consultant’s rule of 120 minutes work and 20 minutes doing something else – in reverse. I spend two hours at a time cleaning up after the crazy puppies and only 20 minutes at a time writing this article or anything else. So if it is a bit of a jumble, I apologise.

Normal service will be resumed in 2023, eventually. Some kind of equilibrium will be restored. And there is an upside. I’m loving every minute of the chaos and the puppies. It’s raining outside and one of them is trying to eat the Christmas tree, while the other is sleeping upside down with his feet in the air. I’m going to get my coat and take them for a walk but now I can claim that I am actually “taking a break from burn-out”. Either way, I’m smiling. Happy New Year.

Published: December 28, 2022, 9:00 AM