On 26 January 2022, the Bar Council reported that one in six young barristers want to leave the profession amid unmanageable workloads and fear of burnout. I read this as I returned to the Bar after leaving eight years ago. I read with frustration that, eight years on, leaving still feels like the only option to many. I look back on my own decision to leave the Bar with great sadness, as I recognise now it was nothing to do with a lack of ability or passion for the job. It was down to a lack of resources to manage the pressure of it.

Commitment to work at all costs is normalised within the profession and worn like a badge of honour. When I began to struggle, I doubted my professional competence and suitability to be a barrister. I was negative about my prospects and stability in a profession that I had worked so hard to join, and I left.

It wasn’t until after I left, that I realised I had likely experienced burnout.

Burnout is now included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon:

‘Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.’

I have a suspicion that burnout is often misdiagnosed as anxiety. Stress alone doesn’t cause burnout; it is the loss of resources and coping strategies to manage it. Barristers are particularly at risk because of the nature of our work and our approach to it. Many of the characteristics that make us succeed at the Bar, are also what will tip us into burnout. Extreme work commitment, perfectionist tendencies and fear of failure mean we allow work to erode other areas of our life. Sleep, exercise, and hobbies are willingly sacrificed. However, these are the very things that protect us from burnout.

After I left the Bar, I still worked long hours on a constant stream of cases with distressing content, in a role that held great responsibility. However, over time my confidence and ambition returned. I have reflected on what changed. Firstly, the culture was very different. The organisation I worked for invested heavily in benefits that maintained the physical and mental health of employees. There was open discussion about mental health issues and recognition about how it can be affected at work. The Bar is late in acknowledging issues like vicarious trauma and burnout.

Secondly, I overhauled my lifestyle outside of work. I started with a 12-week exercise and nutrition programme with a specialist training company. The changes they recommended felt so dramatic I was sceptical about how long they would be compatible with a busy career. Twelve weeks became 15 months and, five years later, I still live by the same routine and principles they instilled. Weight training four times a week is now my outlet; it is an hour where I truly switch off. I eat properly, I take supplements that support my nervous system, immunity and sleep. All of this mitigates the physiological impact of stress on my body and increases cognitive function. I work more efficiently and I have a solid foundation on which to cope with the pressures of the job.

I have returned to the Bar with different beliefs about what makes for a successful practice. I am passionate about my work, but recognise that my ability to perform is reliant on maintaining my health. Barristers function very highly under extreme pressure, but that doesn’t mean it is safe to do so. It is important to identify an outlet, and prioritise it.

Returning to the Bar, I can see the conversation around mental health has changed for the better. Many chambers have invested in wellbeing initiatives. However, the resources available are not yet consistent across the profession. Part of this is due to the self-employed status of barristers. There is no legal requirement for anybody to assess the risk of work-related stress on self-employed barristers, and nobody has a legal duty to ensure our wellbeing.

It is in the interests of chambers to invest in schemes that maintain the wellbeing of barristers, and to promote balance. For example, at Red Lion Chambers, where I am an associate tenant, there is a wellbeing committee, regular get-togethers, a book club and recently an informative webinar on menopause. Perhaps most obviously, investment in wellbeing aids retention and recruitment of members.

Access to services such as counselling can be the intervention that stops someone leaving the profession altogether. An effective support system keeps members ‘in work’, earning and performing. Wellbeing can be incorporated into networking events that are more engaging. By supporting wellbeing initiatives, the Bar can remove some of the stigma that remains around mental health. It is important the message permeates from pupil barristers, to juniors and right up to silk level.

While the research into wellbeing at the Bar is a welcome acknowledgment of the state of mental health within the profession, it is important not to get stuck in a narrative that this is just the reality of life at the Bar. 

Individually and collectively, there is so much that can be done to prevent burnout and encourage work/life balance.