Wellbeing in the North
I am approaching 10 years call next month, and have noted during my own time at the Bar those exceptionally talented members we have sadly lost from the profession due to serious emotional health and stress-related issues. Positively, however, in that decade and more recently, I have observed a significant shift in how willing members of my own chambers, and those I meet across the Northern Circuit, are to speak about the particular and significant pressures that our profession faces, and the wellbeing issues that can arise.
Chambers across the Circuit have responded positively to the promotion of wellbeing and mental health issues at the Bar; although at this time, initiatives centre on chambers-centric support, rather than providing events and support across Circuit. Below is a taster of what is happening in different corners of the North.
Doughty Street Chambers (Manchester) publicises a weekly newsletter in respect of wellbeing issues, which signposts members to courses, programmes and seminars. It has also arranged mindfulness courses on-site, as well as organising stress relieving massages to be provided every few months. The professional fees for the same are covered through chambers’ expenses.
At Kenworthys Chambers, and through her work with Women in the Law, Sally Penni has taken the lead in organising specific events to highlight the importance of wellbeing for members, arranging theatre visits to promote the importance of a good work / life balance, and awareness events on anxiety and stress.
Exchange Chambers has recently received Wellbeing at the Bar’s Certificate of Recognition for its initiatives, undertaking a chambers-wide survey to inform its strategy on wellbeing issues. It organises regular charity events, social events, and sporting challenges to promote cohesion and inclusivity within chambers. In particular, it has found the setting up of a Wellbeing Committee to be particularly helpful in identifying and implementing measures to improve the wellbeing of tenants and pupils. The Committee works in coherence with the work of the Management Committee and others such as the Equality and Diversity Committee. The monthly newsletter incorporates a wellbeing update for all members. Staff and members are also encouraged to attend pilates and yoga classes, and an on-site health club which encourages exercise and healthy eating.
Kings Chambers has created a particularly thorough wellbeing policy, the detail of which has been kindly offered to other chambers across not only the Northern Circuit, but also across both the North Eastern and Midland Circuits, where its other sites are based. Its principal aim is to ensure those problems that each of us may go through as part of our lives and professional experiences are manageable, and do not escalate. Chambers has a particularly strong mentoring team, used now by a number of members on a confidential basis, and whose membership is expanding to those who wish to give back following successful use of this service. Heads of department and clerks are watchful of the early warning signs of an overburdened barrister or staff member. Kings Chambers has also recognised the impact of wellbeing issues on staff, and now has a separate Head of Wellbeing for staff members, with individuals identified as mentors for others, and addressing staff-specific issues. In addition, members have access to nutritional professionals. The Heads of Wellbeing are well-equipped to signpost members and staff to counselling and other external professional help due to their extensive support networks, and have also received training from an outside source provider.
At my own Chambers, St John’s Buildings, staff and members have been quick to recognise the issues that arose from the huge survey conducted in respect of wellbeing issues for barristers. Chambers has set up a ‘Members’ Welfare’ initiative, published in January 2016, which aims to increase awareness and destigmatise the issue, encouraging members to connect and seek support from a range of sources, including each other, at an early stage. The initiative is contained in a policy document, identifying volunteers and wellbeing mentors within chambers who are happy to be approached on a confidential basis for support and advice. It makes provision for private healthcare, occupational health, and is particularly strong in terms of organising fundraising through sporting events, such as the Manchester 10k. A number of members completed a 12 hour ‘spinathon’ in 2016 for chambers’ selected charity, and a challenge is currently being organised for a small number of members to collectively row a million kilometres on a static machine. Regular sessions at the Manchester Velodrome are organised, with chambers recognising that exercise promotes the release of endorphins.
Chambers has, since October 2017, promoted a Member Assistance Programme which allows members access to six sessions of counselling, funded by chambers, with referrals to remain confidential, as well as a 24/7 helpline. Members and staff are also encouraged to join chambers’ choir, which meets weekly in the autumn to sing on an informal basis and prepare some songs for the Christmas party. Finally, support and inclusiveness is promoted particularly well at the junior end of chambers, with regular social events planned to include an upcoming trip to see Legally Blonde at the theatre. Chambers has fittingly been awarded the Wellbeing at the Bar Certificate of Recognition.
I am sure that sets on the Northern Circuit will continue to creatively identify wellbeing initiatives, with perhaps a Circuit wide strategy being the next step. It would be great to see Heads of Wellbeing at each set meeting every few months to share ideas and perhaps plan Circuit-wide events.
Elisabeth Cooper is the Northern Circuit Representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Committee and is a member of St John’s Buildings Chambers, which has sites in Manchester, Liverpool, Chester and Sheffield.