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Wellbeing at the Bar: Our New Chair 2019

Plans for Wellbeing at the Bar in 2019

In 2019 I am chairing the Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar (‘WATB’) Working Group. It would be impossible to start my time as chair in any way other than by paying tribute to the outgoing chair, and indeed our only chair to date, Rachel Spearing. Rachel truly deserves to be called inspirational. She has led the Bar’s wellbeing movement from the front with true commitment, lending encouragement and support where needed, and somehow managing to keep smiling throughout. Fortunately, Rachel is staying on as a working group member. And we will still be helped by the amazing Sam Mercer and her Bar Council team, Kathy Wong and Shiryn Sayani – we should give huge thanks too to Onyeka Onyekwelu, moving to pastures new, for all her help on the website and in Working Group meetings. So, I will be standing, albeit perhaps wobbling vertiginously, on the shoulders of giants.

I have always thought that the Wellbeing at the Bar project is about wellbeing in its broadest sense – not just adverse mental health (although that forms a large part of our work), but being well, physically and mentally. Many members of the working group have their personal wellbeing stories to tell, and I am no different. I have spoken on the WATB website about the merits of counselling and recently I have had cause to reflect on lessons learned during those sessions, particularly that when your wellbeing levels drop, you have two sets of resources to draw on – external and internal.

During this year, I would encourage people to think about the external resources available to them, to improve and maintain their wellbeing. On the working group, we would like to think that we have created one external resource which all barristers, and their staff, can draw on: the WATB website itself. It is designed to help and advise you if you want help or information, but also if you think you spot warning signs in others, and of course there are some tips on staying well. One of my aims by the end of this year is for all barristers to have looked at the website. At the moment when I make wellbeing presentations, I am hitting about 30-40% success in terms of people who have looked at the site on a show of hands, so there’s some way to go. After barristers, I am aiming at prospective barristers, i.e. pupils and bar students. Spread the word, please!

Another external resource which the working group has worked hard on recently is the Bar Council Employee Assistance Programme, in partnership with Health Assured and funded by BMIF. You can read more about it on our website here, but this resource is available to all self-employed barristers together with members of the IBC and LPMA. You can access assistance by calling the confidential telephone service to discuss emotional and practical problems. You will also have access to online services, providing information and assistance with common health concerns.

After that, external resources will vary from person to person, but they are likely to include talking about your pressures to life partners, family and friends, and out-of-work activities (walking, running, yoga, reading, extreme-ironing or anarchist-knitting – whatever it is that takes you away from your work pressures and gives you back some balance).

What about internal resources? By definition, this will be intensely personal. But, as a counsellor once pointed out to me during a low patch: “Well, you’ve made it through low times before, just remember that you can deal with this one too.” In other words, you almost certainly already possess way more resilience (to use a word which divides the wellbeing community) than you might at first think.

Other aspirations for the coming year? In an ideal world, every set of chambers will have a wellbeing officer (or group), so I will be making a start on that. In any project like this there will be three broad groups of people: leaders, who make things happen; participants, more or less happy to be fellow travellers; and sceptics. My original involvement in the WATB project came about as a direct result of a sceptical remark by a colleague about the perceived merits of a project which simply in his view recognised that our working lives were stressful – we both remembered this remark recently, me because I started that day on the journey which leads me here, him because he now agrees that the project has some merit after all!

So, onwards into 2019. We will be publishing blog pieces every month, putting on wellbeing presentations, and developing new wellbeing initiatives. Come with us please, whichever group you’re in!

Nick Peacock (1992 call) is a barrister at Hailsham Chambers. His principal areas of practice are clinical negligence and professional disciplinary cases. He is the Chair of the  Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group.