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 Is the working environment of the Bar conducive to damaging our wellbeing?

 Is the working environment of the Bar conducive to damaging our wellbeing?

Negative words and phrases can frequently be overheard in our courts and not just from the defendant about to be sent to prison for eight years. Barristers are also guilty of contributing their fair share of negativity to our working environments.

The array of challenges faced by the modern Bar makes having a moan more justifiable than ever before. At the criminal Bar, I frequently hear counsel complaining about how awful or hopeless their case is, how long their day has been, how bored they are sitting and waiting for a case to be called on or how long it has taken them to get to court that day. The list goes on.

The concern raised from all of this though is whether these sorts of attitudes are unintentionally creating an atmosphere conducive to damaging our wellbeing. Something which I have taken particular notice of is the amount of discouragement aimed towards very junior members of the Bar, pupils and those contemplating coming to the Bar.

The majority of the time, most don’t give a second thought to expressing negative views in front of colleagues. Of course, conversations cannot always be entirely positive. That is simply not a true reflection of reality. The state of our legal system at present is far from ideal. That is a whole other issue.

In relation to our working lives however, it is important to gain an insight as to how these comments may create an environment which impacts those already suffering, or borderline suffering, from mental health issues.

Having faced my own wellbeing battles, I am particularly cautious of how my words and attitudes can have an effect on others. When working in an environment of constant negativity, it is so incredibly easy to feel mentally drained and physically exhausted. Those already facing challenges to their wellbeing are particularly prone to being drained faster and subject to a longer road back to a positive mental state.

The theme of this blog can therefore be summarised in one word, awareness. Whilst we have come leaps and bounds in terms of talking about our wellbeing and mental health, there is still a way to go. First off, you are almost never going to know who, out of your colleagues, is suffering from mental health problems. You are even less likely to know how those problems affect that individual. Hence, whilst we are now aware of some of the challenges facing our wellbeing and to some extent how to tackle them, we are not yet fully comfortable with acknowledging that we may be the one suffering.

So, coming back to the issue of negativity at the Bar. We should be more conscious and aware of who we are around. Even your closest colleague could be facing challenges you’re not aware of. Place yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if having struggled to find the motivation to get out bed that morning, you are then greeted by a wave of negative comments from your colleague? It really doesn’t create the best working environment, let alone an environment where we can then talk comfortably about any mental health challenges we are facing.

Ironic as it is, be aware that those often suffering are the ones you’d least expect to be. So, try not to make assumptions on who is and who isn’t going to be affected by what you say. Instead, consider these three things:

  1. Reflect on yourself and develop the ability to identify when you are being the negative one in the room.
  2. Consider who you are around and be cautious of the words and phrases you use.
  3. If you have that moment where you see a thought, coming to the front of your mind and you know it’s about to turn into words, pause for a moment. Similarly, to how when you are cross-examining a witness and you can so easily ask that one question too many. When in doubt about whether what you are about to say could potentially mentally drain the person standing next to you, pause and try to filter that thought and make less negative.

In the words of Willie Nelson, “once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results”. That approach will also help others achieve positive results. There is no harm in looking for subtle signs of our own negativity and taking action based on our observations. Barristers are generally rather good at making observations so let’s turn away from our papers and take a closer look at ourselves and our colleagues.

Life at the Bar is fast paced, stressful and chaotic at times. But life at the Bar is also rewarding, enjoyable and a rare profession where camaraderie still exists. So, smile at the next barrister you see and encourage a more positive atmosphere at the Bar.

Aimee Stokes is the Middle Temple Young Bar Association representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group.