This article first appeared in LawCare’s blog: 22 March 2017
The Bar Council initiated our wellbeing work fully aware that we were going to be in it for the long haul. We recognised we had a mountain to climb in challenging the stigma too often associated with mental health, particularly at the Bar. That said, we’ve been surprised at how receptive barristers (and their clerks) have been, there is a real sense that this is an issue whose time has come.
The findings of our 2015 wellbeing survey, in which 2,500 barristers participated, endorse this. We found that:
- One in three barristers find it difficult to control/stop worrying
- Two in three feel that showing signs of stress equals weakness
- One in six feel in low spirits most of the time
These results probably won’t surprise anyone. According to MIND, one in four is affected by a mental health issue every year, and lawyers are no different.
We’ve structured our wellbeing programme around three main aims: to improve barristers’ wellbeing and resilience; to improve chambers’ management practices and understanding of wellbeing and mental health, and to improve the support available to those in crisis.
We’ve been looking at stress, overwork, anxiety, perfectionism and lack of self-confidence, as well as the interplay between personal and working lives, caring responsibilities, financial issues, mental illness, physical illness and addiction. Obviously the degree to which these, or other factors, affect the lives of practitioners varies, and the promotion of wellbeing at the Bar involves encouraging appropriate coping and resilience strategies, and supporting those assisting colleagues with issues.
Our first step has been to develop online resources for a profession potentially unwilling to ‘come out’, but hungry for information and advice. The site has grown to cover self-help for barristers and clerks, tips on building resilience, links and sources of support, advice on interventions and ideas for policies and practices in chambers. We’re immensely proud of it, and grateful for the assistance given by so many. And we’ve been thrilled by the response. The portal had over 50,000 visits in its first three months. Even more satisfying is the anecdotal feedback: barristers and clerks using the site and finding the resources helpful either for themselves, assisting colleagues or developing wellbeing policies and initiatives in their chambers.
After two years with our heads down, building partnerships with key Bar players – the SBAs, Circuits, Inns of Court and Institute of Barristers’ Clerks – gathering evidence and developing our response, we’ve assessed progress.
Over the next 12 months we will be developing more resources for the site as well as exploring what additional practical support we can provide to encourage chambers to adopt wellbeing initiatives. We’re particularly keen to promote mentoring, as our research found this was important to resilience. As to what we’ve learned to date: firstly, partnership is absolutely crucial to success. We’ve been very lucky with our Bar partners, and we also rely on LawCare to be there for barristers who need to talk to someone.
The legal sector taskforce provides a fantastic opportunity to extend partnerships to tackle wellbeing issues, where relationships between solicitors and barristers, and barristers and the judiciary, present particular challenges. Secondly, maintain slow steady progress: these culture changes won’t happen overnight. It is going to take longterm commitment and, while the signs are good, we still have a long way to go.
Sam Mercer, Head of Policy: E&D and CSR, Bar Council