Real talk. It jolted me when one of my children asked, “What is most important; sleep, work or playtime?”
I had to ask myself whether this was a hint that I was neglecting those close to me? That I had succumbed to the insidious grasp of the demands of life at the Bar? Those pressures that can affect all of us in different ways from time to time.
Too much work. Not enough time. The overbearing sense of responsibility. The desire to be perfect. The self-doubt. The fear of failure. Placing work before family or the feeling guilty for doing just that.
Now, there was a time that I, like so many of us, may not have tuned into the implications of that question. That does me no credit but, as it turns out, on this occasion I need not have worried. The question in fact arose because of a school project rather than anything I had, or had not, done (I hope). The fact that the question was asked at all is a positive reflection of how wellbeing is now being taken more seriously in wider society. Our children are being taught about wellbeing as part of a healthy lifestyle along with diet and exercise. Sports people openly discussing the weight and pressures of functioning at a high level (sound familiar?). Even headline artists at Glastonbury openly rapping about “dark times…and fighting depression”. Times they are a changing and the Bar has been very much part of that change.
Three years on in our journey, we now see many of our organisations implementing comprehensive strategies and policies to assist their members in coping, understanding and maintaining their own wellbeing and that of those who work with them. Proving many of the sceptics wrong.
It therefore was a source of real pride that a high percentage of chambers on the North Eastern Circuit have now been awarded the Bar Council’s “Certificate of Recognition,” reflecting their efforts in promoting and protecting wellbeing. Measures in place range from a sensible reporting system, to mentoring schemes, to “mental health first aid training” and even group yoga sessions. The list goes on. It includes on Circuit a comprehensive education programme enabling those trained to look for the early warning signs; not just in ourselves but those exhibited by our colleagues also. Therefore, understanding that a proper approach to wellbeing involves looking after each other as well. I encourage all chambers and associations to apply for recognition. At the very least going through the process of application and developing the necessary policies for it, helps with understanding the overwhelming case for taking wellbeing seriously. I don’t see how a forward thinking organisation can resist it.
But there is more that needs to be done. That was brought home to us painfully when we lost two popular members of circuit in the last 12 months. One to physical ill health and one to wider wellbeing issues. Both losses took their colleagues by surprise. For many it was a rude awakening as to why we need to look after ourselves and each other. So, the pressures of our work still remain and in some instances are on the rise. The (in)ability to switch off is something that has to be considered at a high level so that we have sensible and workable policies that recognise also that our job is one that requires a unique flexibility. We also need to create an environment where we are able to speak about our issues without feeling we have betrayed some weakness. The answers are not straight forward but require us to be understanding and supportive of our fellow professionals.
Back to the original question of priorities. I had historically viewed myself as being robust and resilient, and perhaps not given personal wellbeing the time it merited. My approach was profoundly changed in 5 minutes by watching the excellent explanatory “Staying Well” video (its animated too!!) by Dr Rob Mitchell. It ought to be compulsory viewing. It brings home the fact that it is often those who are the most robust that can be hit the hardest and it explains the effects of our work, what can go wrong and crucially what to do about.
So, whilst I may have once given an answer broadly based around the importance of work I recognise now that the correct answer for all of us is that there must be balance. As a barrister you won’t truly enjoy any of them (family life, work, playtime or sleep) or perform well at them without a sensible approach to each of them and understanding that they are all interdependent. We owe that to ourselves and those close to us. Naturally, I told the children “playtime every time” (just don’t tell the teachers!).
Jason Pitter QC (1994 call) is a barrister and the Wellbeing lead at New Park Court Chambers.