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Wellbeing at the Bar Chair’s Blog 2022: The Action Plan

 …we now have data to empirically measure the mental health of the Bar. It will come as no surprise to hear that the results were low in the happiness thermometer.

Rewind to 3 years (that feels more like 10 years ago at the moment) in 2019 when the founder and Chair of this committee, Rachel Spearing, posted her exiting remarks, handing over to Nick Peacock who I know will have felt the same nerves and overwhelming responsibility that I now feel as the new Chair for 2022. Since I joined the group in 2019 I have listened in awe to those who bravely share their experiences and dedicate their time and effort to the pursuit of a healthy mind of others: our peers/colleagues, family and friends alike.

As a representative committee  we all support the work of the WATB and as Chair my aim this year is to once again pull together the strengths of our members to continue to promote and encourage the use of the wellbeing tools available to all members/associates of the Bar including pupils, clerks and the employed bar. You may find this surprising to hear but a committee full of barristers could not operate on its own, behind the scenes there is a tremendous amount of effort that goes into keeping the group working – literally. My sincere thanks go to Sam Mercer and Savannah Sevenzo (Bar Council Policy team) who work with us whilst being able to simultaneously publish other hard hitting reports such as the research of the experiences of women at the Bar to name but one example. So, when I use ‘we’ in this blog I therefore mean all of us. You will have seen the promotional video for  WATB which we will aim to update this year so that you are able to meet some if not all of our members through that if you don’t manage to catch us in person this year.

Having spent many years at both the criminal bar in chambers at 2 Bedford Row and now the employed bar I will be using these experiences to share ideas across both the employed and self-employed bar to continue to find innovative ways to encourage those in the legal profession to actively engage in addressing their own mental health and that of their peers/colleagues (recommended reading: blog on kindness).

This year is particularly exciting for the WATB given that we now have fresh data to use as a reference point to empirically measure the mental health of the Bar. This is important because it means that we have a metric to measure against each year and discover how we can improve the findings. It will come as no surprise to hear that the results were low in the happiness thermometer.  The headline findings of the Wellbeing at the Bar Research 2021 found that:

➢ 1 in 3 barristers have low overall wellbeing
➢ 1 in 3 feel down or in low spirits
➢ Less than half are managing their workload well, and worryingly 1 in 3 are
not coping with their workload
➢ 2 in 3 report high levels of perfectionism (dwelling on mistakes/being critical
of oneself)

➢ Women and younger barristers have lower wellbeing than men and more
senior barristers
➢ Barristers working in crime have lower overall wellbeing than those in other
practice areas

It goes without saying that the last 2 years have been particularly challenging for most people so the figures are reflective of where we all were during 2020-2021 but coupled with courts closing and the lack of work resulting in dire financial straits for many it is of no surprise that the research has generated these stark figures. The more uplifting news is however, that it also identified that

➢ 2 in 3 get support from their colleagues and workplace

There is hope for us yet and my aim for this year is to focus on what the WATB committee and its associates (those in chambers and at the workplace) can do to change this figure so that all barristers feel that they get support from their colleagues and workplace. In the Action Plan this is referred to as ‘Supportive Work Environments and workplace culture at the Bar’.

We need to target support towards more junior members of the profession; and recognise that there are particular challenges for women, those on circuit and in lower income groups. We will also continue to promote initiatives that support wellbeing across chambers – not just in the support made available via e.g. wellbeing officers, access to helplines and counselling and in the promotion of healthy working practices and social support, but also in the way chambers support individual barristers with:

  • Practice management – support and development (addressing workload and
    income)
  • Flexibility (work-life balance)
  • Inclusive cultures (zero tolerance of bullying and harassment)
  • Tackling unhealthy/excessive perfectionism

While the Action Plan for 2022 is a work in progress and still hot off the press, in the meantime the Bar Council continues to run various initiatives to provide that support such as the assistance programme certification of recognition programmes for chambers and talk to Spot (a tool to confidentially report harassment and bullying).

I end this post by expressing my thanks to the outgoing Chair, Theo Huckle QC, for leading the WATB working group through the last year of what I hope will be the last year of the pandemic and we can look forward to brighter and bigger things. Get those walking shoes ready and lets plan for the 2022 London Legal Walk again, I hope to see you there if not before.

Rebecca Dix

Rebecca is  Deputy General Counsel at the Serious Fraud Office and Chair of the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group