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Spotlight on Stress: Signs, triggers and how to manage it

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Improving awareness in the context of mental health means a number of things, not least being better informed and equipped to manage what it is we and others sometimes feel, why, and how we can combat it.

As life steadily returns to a semblance of what we can remember before the COVID19 pandemic, we may have a number of feelings associated with these changes, some positive and some less so. But for many in the profession a consistent feature of the past year and beyond will be managing levels of stress during busy periods in their work and/or personal lives.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s way of responding to a perceived threat. It’s the “fight or flight” response, designed to keep you energised and alert in an emergency. It clearly has an important role in our survival, but problems arise because the body cannot easily distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones. Stress is something most of us would say we’ve experienced at high levels at one time another, and more often than not we would attribute these experiences to our working lives.

What are the main stress triggers at the Bar?

Stress can be triggered by single events or a culmination of factors that place high demands on you. Probably the most common at the Bar are:

  • Overwork
  • Unsociable working hours
  • Financial pressures
  • Pressure to perform

The starting point in the fight against stress is recognising when you are suffering.

How do I recognise the signs and symptoms?

If having elevated stress levels becomes a common aspect of your working life, it can be harder to recognise when you are suffering. Some common signs include:

  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor judgement
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Higher heart rate
  • Frequent colds or illness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeping too little or much
  • Heavy consumption of alcohol/cigarettes/caffeine

How can we build stress resilience at the Bar?

Connecting with others

When we feel stressed it can be really easy to turn to things like alcohol, cigarettes or caffeine to provide short-term relief, when in fact in the longer term it will do the opposite. The social culture at the Bar, which sometimes is weighted towards environments like the pub, does not always help in that respect. Connecting with others is an effective way to build stress resilience, so it is important to find ways to do that in environments which do not consistently encourage us to indulge in unhealthy habits.

Making time for yourself

Creating time for yourself away from work doing something you enjoy is another crucial weapon in building resilience, but this can be difficult if you are very busy. If you find committing to that time is hard, then arrange it in ways that can be hard to move or cancel, such as by agreeing to do it with somebody else.

Working smarter not harder

For most barristers the in-tray is going to be pretty constantly filling. Accepting that you might not empty it every day is OK. Prioritise the most important work first and leave the least important to last. Even getting through those first tasks can be really empowering and give you a real shot in the arm when turning to the rest.

Helping others

Evidence has shown that acts of altruism can improve our resilience as well as making us feel good. Volunteering or pro-bono are good avenues for barristers to do this, but it can be an unwanted time commitment, especially if you already have a lot on your plate. Just doing someone a favour or making them a cup of tea will have the same effect.

Michael Harwood

Michael is a lawyer at the Government Legal Department currently working for a major public inquiry. He is an elected member of the Bar Council and Young Barristers’ Committee.