Addressing “Wellbeing at the Bar” has become a widely known and talked about concept.
Largely in response to the work that The Bar Council has undertaken (not least of all the construction of a Wellbeing website), our chambers decided that a wellbeing “policy” was required. But how do we codify wellbeing? Or a commitment to it? And even if we can, what difference does a document in chambers that suggests everyone should take care of themselves and each other, really make to our overall experience of life at the Bar. The task for many chambers is how we actually alter our working practices and habits, without just paying lip-service to the concept of wellbeing whilst still working a 70-hour week and drowning in paper work.
When I wrote chambers’ wellbeing policy, it quickly became apparent that much of what is required to keep us all afloat at the Bar was already happening. The support that is available to tenants from colleagues in chambers, a flexible working pattern if required, careful management of one’s diary, and sufficient social events to help keep us all connected, were already part of chambers’ ethos. How then do we take an attitude which is already ingrained in chambers’ approach and constitution, and foster it? I wanted to make sure that the attitude towards wellbeing wasn’t just something that is reactive to issues concerning our wellbeing. It could be proactive, and public – easily accessible to those looking for support. The aim was to make sure that no tenant or member of staff slips through the net; that in times of need we are supported readily before crisis point; and that we “start a conversation” around wellbeing which eventually seeps into our everyday practice. The plan was to prioritise wellbeing, not to side line it as something desirable only if and when practice allows.
Unsurprisingly, the advent of a wellbeing policy hasn’t altered us all unrecognisably. As far as I am aware, none of us have yet attained enlightenment, I haven’t found the criminal team lighting incense and practicing yoga, and we are yet to install a juice bar or swap our morning coffee for kale shots. But that isn’t the point. In fact, it’s part of the problem. wellbeing shouldn’t be something which is unattainable. It isn’t supposed to require years of meditation and a laser like focus on mindfulness. When we treat wellbeing as though it’s an unattainable concept, we only heap more pressure on our currently already pressurised lifestyles and defeat the objective. So, we started small. We wrote a policy which suggests we should try (if we want to) to take care of ourselves. Importantly in my view, we made a space.
We are lucky to have a small courtyard nestled between the walls of chambers and surrounding buildings. Historically, the courtyard had been damp, full of weeds and unusable. We employed a local horticulturalist to design and install some planters and hard landscaping, and in one day the space was transformed. The courtyard has been used for small social gatherings and in summer the garden furniture out there provides another area to read or work. Our clerks can spend their lunch hour in the sunshine or just getting some fresh air, and the space is quiet because it is situated on what is effectively the lower ground floor. Maybe some of our wellbeing practices still need work, but the court yard is a physical, tangible change in chambers. It was apt as our first wellbeing project; the next is a gym room!
Zoe Henry (2010 call) is a barrister at KCH Garden Square, Nottingham.