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Serjeants’ Inn Chambers

This case study may be useful if you are looking for examples of developing a wellbeing policy, increasing awareness of wellbeing, developing resilience training schemes and/or promoting wellbeing initiatives.

Serjeants’ Inn specialises in high profile – and often high pressure – medical, police, regulatory and public law cases, typically involving political, ethical or social issues.

Their cases are suffused with the complications and consequences of mental health issues and, as a result, they are particularly conscious of the need for a proactive, progressive approach to well-being within their own organisation.

What was the business (other case) for action?

They see a clear case for action for the following reasons:

  • the nature of their cases can be stressful. For example, the serious medical treatment proceedings they deal with are the only cases in the modern era where life or death can directly be at stake;
  • their instructions are frequently urgent, involving last-minute and round-the-clock work, on the part of barristers and staff alike; and
  • their cases often generate intense traditional and social media scrutiny, as was the case for example, with the recent Charlie Gard proceedings, in which they acted for the family at first instance and the hospital throughout.

They are conscious of the potential effects of these combined pressures on both barristers and staff and are keen to take steps to reduce and offset them.

They are also aware of the direct and indirect costs of well-being problems to a business, as publicised by, for example, the CBI in its report: “Getting better: workplace health as a business issue”.

What did the Chambers do?

They have adopted the BUPA philosophy:

Well-being is not an initiative, it’s about creating a culture and environment where people thrive,” Patrick Watt, corporate director and global head of wellness at BUPA.

Their approach has therefore been to establish and publicise a general, central Chambers commitment to well-being in the conviction that a wide range of diverse, non-prescriptive initiatives would flourish from that, reflecting individual preferences and personalities and their different views of what “thriving” might mean.
They have set out to create an open, supportive culture in Chambers with an emphasis on a preventative – but not intrusive – approach to well-being.

Their approach includes measures as follows:

building awareness of well-being and its importance within Chambers:

  • creating and encouraging the use of a resource section and discussion board on our Chambers intranet;
  • including well-being as (a) one of only six points in the 2017 Chambers Strategy Plan (b) a standard agenda item for all practice reviews and (c) a point for weekly discussion at the full-staff meetings they have scheduled for every Wednesday;

improving communication about workload and stress points:

  • restructuring to establish three clerking teams, working for specified groups of barristers, to give better continuity of dialogue about capacity and other issues (previously all clerks worked with all tenants);
  • opening up the premises to create one large area within which their 20 staff work together, through which their barristers pass to the office space, which is largely open-plan and glass-walled;
  • enhancing their existing mentoring approach (in particular prioritising established practitioner recruits, silk applicants, people returning to work after parental or other leave and junior staff);

 

facilitating flexible working and investing in support – systems:

  • enhancing existing hot-desking and desk-sharing options;
  • significantly improving their IT provision, which makes it easier to fit work around other responsibilities and interests and improves working life generally;

developing individual resilience and relevant skills:

  • encouraging take up of well-being initiatives such as complimentary gym membership, an in-house massage programme, mental and physical health apps such as Active 10, Headspace and relevant BBC podcasts;
  • running best practice training encompassing work/life balance and well-being tips and soft skills such as active listening;

supporting and promoting individual initiatives:

  • accommodating diverse activity including singing lessons, charity work and counselling/coaching courses (within the working day where possible/appropriate);
  • backing numerous sponsored sporting activities;
  • arranging and subsidising social events ranging from an annual female staff/barrister ski trip to table football and bowling evenings.

Some of these measures were introduced in direct response to suggestions made in a barrister and staff consultation exercise in 2015, which attracted a 96% response rate and which was followed by five workshop discussions. This process covered all aspects of working at Serjeants’ Inn and in so far as it concerned well-being it was informed by the Bar Council’s Resilience Framework Assessment on well-being which was published around the same time.

They have also been advised by a key member of staff who trained in well-being and stress management for self-employed practitioners as part of her degree in Music at the Guildhall. She is now their Well-being Officer.

What were the results?

This is difficult to quantify but they can provide some figures:

  • free gym membership has been taken up by 69% of staff: in a recent survey about this over 90% said they would not have taken up membership if they were paying for it themselves;
  • 9 tenants have taken up hot desking and 16 are desk-sharing. This is particularly effective: further barristers are on a waiting list to sign up and they are in the process of increasing capacity for this facility.  The fluidity it provides increases communication and relationships within Chambers as well as making it easier for individuals to work flexibly to fit in with other priorities;
  • 87% of participants to a 2016 barrister and staff survey on IT stated that their IT provision had a positive impact on their level of job satisfaction; and
  • they have established a comprehensive well-being resource on their intranet, covering mental and physical health, mindfulness, relaxation, the correlation between well-being and performance and other relevant materials, as well as a discussion board where members and staff can post anonymously about wellbeing issues if they wish.

Qualitatively they would refer you to the following:

“Many places talk of having an open-door policy but SIC truly has this. In three decades in Chambers each person, whether barrister or staff, has always been open to any queries I have had about legal, professional, ethical or personal issues” – senior barrister

Serjeants’ Inn wellbeing initiatives

 

 

“Chambers provide members of staff with free gym membership which is a really helpful scheme, especially if you are having a tough day at the office. I find that a quick work-out at lunch time can be great stress relief and also helps increase my concentration levels for what might be in store for the afternoon” – staff member

 “Upon joining Serjeants’ Inn I was provided with a mentor – a slightly more senior barrister doing similar work. I found the arrangement immensely helpful, both as a means of practical guidance and information but also pastorally, during what was a time of great change. It made the process of meeting new people and being accepted as a member very easy. It enabled me to feel included and confident around Chambers from very early on.” – established practitioner who joined from another set

 “There is a very open attitude towards communicating any issues or concerns within chambers. Team leaders and the senior management team are proactive in relaying information to each other. It doesn’t matter how junior the member of staff or barrister is, time is made to support and resolve problems swiftly and efficiently. Making sure everyone feels like they are being listened to is crucial to minimizing stress. This is greatly assisted by the open-plan design of the premises but it is mainly about attitude and ethos” – staff member.

 

 

Wellbeing resource on Serjeants’ Inn intranet

“Serjeant’s Inn Chambers’ story is well worth a read for the breadth of thought, support and safeguarding in place. Serjeant’s Inn clearly demonstrate a deep understanding of this agenda and have been strategic in recognising the need to tackle stress points as well as introduce new initiatives. This makes their approach much more authentic. Changing the way work is done in chambers, the focus on a positive workplace culture as well as the substantial commitment made in wide range of areas including initiatives like gym membership is inspiring.”

Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group

Tips

  • Recognise that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel: tap into the excellent resources available on this issue, not least the Bar Council’s outstanding well-being website (this is so good that Serjeants’ Inn wondered whether their own intranet resource section might be superfluous, but concluded it was an important representation of their commitment to the issue nonetheless).
  • Recognise that both major and minor steps will make a difference: while their intranet is clearly a very effective platform for well-being, our “social” email group was an instant and cost-free facility to set up and is invaluable for communication within Chambers: it is extensively used to publicise social gatherings, exchange news and views and to share knowledge on legal points alike. Similarly, while the fact that they added a fruit bowl to the long-established biscuit tin in the kitchen is clearly somewhat token, it has nonetheless been greatly appreciated.
  • Know your limits: their immediate thought was to set up exercise classes but they realised this wasn’t right for them because (a) availability of meeting rooms is a stress point within Chambers which the need to find space for the classes would only increase (b) their barristers tend to be away at different courts across the country and they were concerned that it would become another Chambers event that people who happened to be in London would feel they had to attend out of a sense of duty and (c) everyone wanted slightly different types of classes!
  • Respect – and don’t prescribe – all the different individual definitions of “thriving”: for example, in recognition that this will often encompass career success, they have combined their softer well-being measures with concrete steps to improve individual career development.
  • Recognise that well-being is about a culture not an initiative and that it is an ongoing commitment: their next step is to qualify for an appropriate industry accreditation for wellbeing.

The information and resource packs on this website are designed to help you and your colleagues to work as a community for better wellbeing and professional resilience. If you want to provide feedback on these resources, or to get involved in promoting wellbeing please get in touch.


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