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Work-Life Balance and Volunteering

Research suggests that to be Canadian is to be a volunteer. A 2003 national survey found that 19 million Canadians do volunteer work every year. This is estimated to be 2 billion hours of volunteer time per year. That’s equivalent to 1 million full time jobs. The same survey found that only 7% of volunteer time consists of sitting on board, while the other 93% finds people helping to deliver programs and services or fundraising. Another national survey found that Canadian volunteers contributed, on average, an astonishing 166 hours each in 2007.

If Canadians are serial volunteers then Canada’s lawyers are amongst the A-list of Canadian volunteers. The incidence and volume of volunteer hours by lawyers seems to be higher than the national average. For example, the vibrant northern city that I live in (Whitehorse) has about 130 lawyers and it seems that virtually all of them are volunteers — often for several organizations at the same time. The lawyers in my community invest tens, even hundreds, of hours a year in everything from sitting on a board of directors for a women’s shelter to their children’s school activities to sport organizations like minor hockey and, of course, to the CBA, law society or other law related organizations. And often it’s done in a very quiet way. Just the other day, I learned that a lawyer in my office who I see every day is up to his ears in volunteer work. Yet, he has never blown his own horn or complained about how busy he is. But he must be very busy because he works full-time, has a family and, on top of that, he’s the chair of the board for the local literacy association, a member of the board for the public legal education association, the past president of the local branch of the CBA and a volunteer with an ethnic association. No wonder the guy sometimes looks tired!

But there are perils to too much volunteering. Looking at it negatively, the volunteer work you have to do today, this week, this weekend or this month is just another drain on your energy and time and can be a significant stressor. Volunteer work is just that, it’s work — though often very enjoyable work. Nonetheless, it has to be factored into the overall work-life balance equation that many lawyers struggle with. And it’s not just lawyers with young children that may find themselves stressed by the pressures of work, family commitments and volunteer activities. Even lawyers who don’t have children or whose children have grown up and left home may find the combination of work, family and volunteering too much at times.

A good volunteer is one who has the time and energy to be engaged in and responsive to their volunteer duties. To do so, one has to have some measure of self-awareness about how much volunteer work they can take on. For many, this is a skill learned over time as they mature through their adulthood. I love to volunteer and have done so for many years, but I haven’t always displayed much self-awareness about how much time I actually have to do the required volunteer work. As a result, to keep up with volunteer commitments, I have often found myself getting less sleep than I need and — I hate to admit this — putting family time on the back burner.

Even though I’m over 50 and my children are in their early 20′s, I’m still learning how to pace myself with volunteer work. For instance, this week I’m setting a very bad example for all volunteers because I’ve taken on way too much. Outside of my regular full-time working hours, I’m attending a Law Foundation meeting, working on ski club business as a member of the board, doing some of the administrative tasks relating to a CBA charity event that’s happening at the end of the month, reading a book about mental health for an on-air book club that is live next week, attending an LPAC board conference call and writing this blog.

So, by all means, lend your talents to the community through volunteering, but don’t forget that volunteering has to be part of work-life balance that lawyers of all ages so desperately seek. If you need help with this, have a close look at your life and be honest about what you can take on, speak to a close friend or call your provincial/territorial lawyer assist program or LPAC’s 24-7 Helpline (1-800-667-5722).

Thomas E. Ullyett
Vice-Chair, LPAC
Assistant Deputy Minister, Legal Services
Department of Justice
Government of Yukon

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