Learning to support yourself and others
Since the inception of the Wellbeing at the Bar initiative in 2015, I have been greatly impressed at how quickly the issue of wellbeing has been embraced by the profession and those who work with barristers. In 2015 the Bar Council’s wellbeing survey indicated that 2 out of 3 barristers felt that showing signs of stress at work indicated weakness, yet now it already seems normal to hear barristers openly discussing stress, anxiety, burnout and related issues. I have a huge amount of admiration for those who have been brave enough to speak out about their own struggles. Many chambers and specialist bar associations have set up wellbeing committees, provided training on mental health, set up mentoring schemes and/or devised wellbeing policies (see https://www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/case-studies/ for further examples).
These initiatives could not be more vital. In January of this year, a friend and former colleague of mine took his own life. He had suffered from sometimes severe depression for many years. Although he loved his work as an employed barrister in the public sector, he struggled with staying well in the workplace. He had been out of work for nearly two years at the time of his death, and I have no doubt that this contributed to the decline in his health. His identity as a barrister and professional was hugely important to him, and of course work provides us all with structure, purpose and social interaction. As with all of us who have lost someone to suicide, I feel guilt and sadness that I could not help him more.
How can we learn to support colleagues better?
In October I attended one of two pilot mental health courses run by Wellness for Law in conjunction with the Bar Council. The course was delivered by an experienced trainer in psychological health, ably assisted by our very own Rachel Spearing (who as well as co-founding and chairing the Wellbeing at the Bar working group, also established Wellness for Law). Rachel was able to tackle specific questions, such as where the line falls between keeping an issue confidential and our professional obligations to report (the quick answer is to contact the Bar Council’s ethics helpline).
Its aims were principally to provide us with a knowledge of common mental health issues, a specific understanding of the pressures facing barristers, and the ability to identify and respond to mental health issues in ourselves and others. We were given a detailed workbook which provided lots of information on where we could access further guidance and support.
The session was attended by barristers in both employed and self-employed practice, and chambers’ members of staff. The course was very interactive, and we discussed issues such as taking breaks (or not …), perfectionism, our personal stress/performance curves, and also worked through a case study. If you’re involved in wellbeing issues in your workplace, or just interested in learning more about how you could support a colleague or member of chambers with a mental health issue, I really recommend the course.
And finally, clearly it is not just at the Bar that there is a lot going on in the wellbeing space. In September, I attended the annual Mental Wealth Festival. During one of the sessions on diversity in the workplace, a BBC news producer talked movingly about her struggles with a severe eating disorder and her ongoing recovery. Her story particularly resonated with me as she talked about managing her sometimes severe anxiety in a highly pressurised and fast-paced working environment. She has founded a network for those suffering from or recovering from eating disorders: www.jiggsysplace.com.
Nina Caplin represents the Bar European Group on the Wellbeing at the Bar working group. She is a Senior Associate at the Financial Conduct Authority.