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Wellbeing – or being well – should be part of our everyday professional lives. It is and should be the norm. The 2017 Barristers’ Working Lives Survey published by the Bar Council found that three out of four respondents said they were under too much pressure at work.
Looking after yourself
Although it may sound trite, there is more to life than work. The most important things in life do not happen at work. There will be things you love doing, whether it is spending time with your family, having a meal with a friend, going for a bike ride, meditating and so on. Make sure this is part of your week. Do not cut it out. It is time away from work that gives you the resilience to do your job.
Learn to say “No”
The ability to say “No” is remarkably liberating and it is not a sign of weakness. This is because it enables you to take control of situations. I often hear barristers say when they have missed some personal commitment: “My clerk put this in my diary”, “My clerk made me do this”. When ever I hear that I think – really? The clerk’s job is to fill your diary but it is your job to tell your clerk what you have on, how long it will take, and what other commitments you have outside work. It is crucial that you do so, otherwise you risk being overwhelmed, and what then happens is you let yourself get into situations which are, or will become, difficult to manage. If you cannot do something within the time stipulated, or you have some commitments outside work, then say so. People will not know, unless you tell them. Speak to them. Talk to them. And by this I mean do not just send emails. Talking to people is a crucial part of communication, and it is much more difficult for somebody to get cross with you (if that is what you are anxious about) if you actually go and see them, and explain the situation.
I learnt this lesson the hard way. It was only when, after about 8 years’ in practice, my now Head of Chambers wandered into my room late on a Friday night and asked me what I was still doing at my desk. Somewhat wearily I listed all that I had to do for various solicitors and said that, yet again, I would be working all weekend. He pointed out – correctly - that the only person I was letting down was myself. I should not have got myself into a position having agreed to do so much work for others, without leaving anytime for myself. He was right and the message was transformative. If what you are being asked to do is too much – say “No”. Make and keep time for yourself.
Looking out for others
The deepest level of support at the Bar comes from colleagues within chambers. Before I became enlightened about wellbeing, one of the things that troubled me was what to do if I was concerned about a colleague. The difficulty is that none of us like confrontation with people we know well or may be working with. On top of that, if you ask someone you are concerned about whether they are “Ok”, they will inevitably say that they are “fine”. You are therefore none the wiser.
In relation to signs of stress, one often needs to look no further than someone’s face. Irritability, mistakes, forgetfulness, misuse of alcohol, are all hallmarks that something is not right and that someone is going off-track and potentially heading for ill health. You do not have to have any history of mental illness to be in this situation. Too much pressure is enough to put you there.
So what do you do? Well the key message is that doing nothing is not an option. If something does not seem right with a colleague, the chances are that they are not right, and steps need to be taken to get that person back on track. Your knowledge, even if it’s just a hunch, about this means that you can take action. You can take the person out for a coffee and a chat outside the work place. If you do this, people often open up and recognise there may be issues that need sorting out or they need help with. Alternatively, speak to your Head of Chambers or Senior clerk. It may be that others have also noticed something of concern. Or, if you have one, go and speak to your Chambers’ Wellbeing Officer. That, in itself, may be enough to get your colleague back on track, and the road to better health and wellbeing.
Amanda Tipples QC was the Chairman of the Chancery Bar Association (July 2016-July 2018), and Chairman of its Wellbeing & CSR sub-committee. In November 2017 the ChBA was awarded a Certificate of Recognition by the Bar Council for all its wellbeing work and was one of the first SBAs to receive such an award. Amanda took silk in 2011, is a Crown Court Recorder (2009) and Deputy High Court Judge (2013). She was Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee in 1997.
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