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Don’t bother counting sheep: how to send a barrister to sleep

Many of us are used to getting less than the optimal amount of sleep, arising from late-night working or early starts to far-flung courts. It’s part of the job, isn’t it? Some people can work until 2am with relish. Some choose to start again at 5am. No one likes it. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it can be a regular part of life at the Bar. Whether we should be putting up with it is a different question.

This blogs looks at what happens when we cannot actually sleep during the amount of time we have set aside for sleep.  It’s not unusual to have a bad night every now and then – perhaps you are worrying about next day’s big case. Perhaps it’s the tax bill. Perhaps there are non-work stresses. But what happens when insomnia of some kind becomes entrenched, and doesn’t disappear after the stressful court case ends? Insomnia is defined as a difficulty getting to sleep and/or staying asleep, occurring three or more nights per week, for at least three months. Unfortunately insomnia is not unusual at the Bar – it affects huge numbers of us, some studies saying as much as 55%.

Cracking the barrister’s experience of insomnia is a tricky one, as most of the commonplace advice about sleep hygiene is at odds with our working routines.  Whether or not you have responsibilities outside your working life, it is hard if not impossible for many of us to lay down our phones/files/law reports at a specific time in early evening on a regular basis and devote the evening to leisure activities which pave the way to an undisturbed night’s sleep.

My reluctant interest in this developed after a difficult appeal where I was working late every night. I’d get into bed and think – well, at least I’ll have 5 hours sleep: that’s fine. Then one of two things would happen – either I’d lie there and watch my 5 hours go down to 4 ¾ hours, then 4½, and so on, or I’d wake up around 4am – long before I’d even had 4 hours sleep and lie there panicking about how I was going to get through the next day. This might have been manageable for a week or two, but after the case was over I keep waking at 4.15am each night, even on holidays. My body was stuck. I could fall asleep easily but could not stay asleep.

This went on so long everyone suffered. I was even grumpier than my teenagers. I fell asleep at my desk in the day. When I woke in the small hours I felt a flood of anxiety stream through me, simply about the fact that I had yet again, woken too early. Whatever I did once I woke – listening to the radio, getting up, reading- did not make a difference. I might drop off again for 30 minutes after 6am, but it was a miserable time.  I found many people I spoke to also had sleeping problems. Some told me to stop fussing. Some said all women my age suffered like this. Some said it was just what lawyers had to deal with. Some said: just get up at 5 and work!

I eventually found out about the insomnia CBT courses run at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and got my GP to refer me. After some months I started a 5 week course. It functions on the basis that once insomnia becomes chronic, the only effective treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which works on very practical methods designed to get you to spending all your time in bed actually sleeping. It involves sticking to the same bedtime and rising time. You can read more about the treatment here and here. 

Some of the methods taught are hard to combine with a barrister’s lifestyle- or indeed with a parent’s lifestyle. But it is designed to train you back to sleeping through. That takes time – just like with a baby. Professor Colin Espie, one of the UK experts in this field says “CBT helps to establish a biological sleep rhythm – the right amount of sleep for you and at the right time. The behavioural elements of CBT help you to build a healthy new sleep pattern; help you to discover how much sleep you need; and to rely on sleep occurring even when you try to remain awake.”

So my sleeping has got better. Not perfect but better. I still have bad nights but I don’t see 4.15am a lot. I failed to stop reading in bed- just too hard. But I manage to get up at the same time most days. My routine leading to sleep has improved. The CBT methods for dealing with ruminating thoughts in the night are effective.

My tips would include (you know all the no screens, no caffeine guidance):

  • get deluxe eye-masks and ear plugs – helps prevent unnecessary waking
  • try the “sleepio” App – being rolled out around the country: see https://www.sleepio.com/work/nhs/.
  • avoid scaremongering books which warn you of getting fat or dying unless you tackle your insomnia (best sellers will remain nameless)
  • avoid provocation by non-lawyers who say ‘how can your “employers” make you work so late?!’
  • try to challenge judges who assume overnight written submissions are the norm.

This last point brings us back to the barrister’s lifestyle. It’s difficult to object when in court in front of clients – but there is something being done about such demands. The Bar Council’s Well-Being Working Group is developing ways to empower counsel to push back against unreasonable requests for overnight work from the judiciary. Such initiatives sit alongside calls to resist extended-hours courts and for an end to late night judicial emails. Yet for our reticence about objecting to judicial demands on the basis that our sleep will be ruined to change, judges and barristers need to talk to one another. We might find our judges are not sleeping either.

Rachel Crasnow QC (1994 call, 2015 silk) is a barrister at Cloisters. Rachel sits on the Bar Council Equality and Diversity Committee and is a member of Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group.