This was so much more than just another website launch though. It marked a major change in that the Bar is talking about mental health and wellbeing in a way that really hasn’t been done previously. Both barristers and clerks; working together for the common good. This is quite a shift in culture, even more so because the conversations that result are not seen as a sign of weakness, but the opposite: a positive move in taking control of wellbeing to make sure that people are working at their best.

The difference clerks’ involvement makes

Wellbeing and mental health were two of my top priorities when I became Chairman of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC) in March last year. The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust and Inner Temple seminar in July 2014 on boosting resilience and wellbeing introduced me to this important issue. From other professionals, specifically those in medicine, we learned some of the basics in understanding mental health. One key point to come out of this event was that, whilst pressure can actually have a positive impact on mental health, too long in a high pressure zone or environment for an individual moves you from a highly functioning pressure state to a debilitating, stressed state.

The talk was excellent, but as the evening progressed I had a sense that there was a real target audience missing: barristers’ clerks. In my experience, clerks were the first port of call for many barristers facing such issues. Equally, clerks are not immune to the pressures and strains in chambers. Moved to stand up on this point, I undertook to take it back to the IBC. As a clerk, here was an opportunity to help my colleagues get the support they needed from their barristers. And for the IBC, this was a great opportunity to show the value that it has in being the conduit to making a difference.

Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group

I joined the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group in the summer of 2014. Led by Rachel Spearing of Pump Court Chambers, together with Sam Mercer of the Bar Council, the working group then had a membership of seven, including the four Inns and the IBC. I saw real enthusiasm on the part of all the members, a desire to make a change and I could see, in a way that I hadn’t experienced previously, that it made a real difference to have clerks’ support.

When the initial Wellbeing at the Bar survey was published in 2014, the IBC led its distribution. Clerks were asked to pass the survey on to members and encourage them to respond. When others sent out the survey, reportedly the response was: ‘I’ve already had this from my clerk’, which just shows how important clerks’ encouragement is to improve cultures and working practices.

The IBC is an equal stakeholder with the Bar Council and Inns of Court in this initiative. It is essential to embed a sense of ownership in this important project for all those working in chambers. I was struck by the fact that my colleagues’ support for the project arose out of a real desire to support their barristers, and not simply because the IBC wanted to ensure clerks were supported. Colleagues from the clerking community contacted me to share their experiences, such as ‘I had a member of chambers who was unwell like that. This is going to be really valuable in knowing how to help in that situation.’ Clerks also told me of their own struggles; some in very moving ways. The fact that we had 2,500 responses to the survey showed just how much demand there was for this sort of support.

By mid-2015 the working group had expanded to include the specialist Bar associations and the Circuits. Gathering momentum, it numbered about 30. With Rachel’s support we also agreed that a significant portion of the website would be dedicated to clerks in two aspects: first in their role in supporting barristers, and second in supporting their own wellbeing. What resulted were resources written by clerks for clerks, and Lucy Barbet (11KBW), Jackie Ginty (1 Essex Court) and Simon Boutwood (Harcourt Chambers) worked with me to make sure that the information was clerk-friendly and relevant.

Ignore at your own peril: relevance to all

At the launch of the site in October and subsequently at the IBC Conference in November, I had the opportunity to show clerks the features the site has specifically for them as well as barristers: from information on how to create a wellbeing policy for chambers to some of the really practical assistance that the site offers, such as how to recognise the signs of a wellbeing issue and how to have a wellbeing conversation.

There is a risk that some clerks will wonder whether the issue of mental wellbeing is really relevant to them and their barristers, and ignore this new initiative until it’s too late. I want to impress on them the value of looking at the site now. Clerks work in a pressured environment. They are working with highly intelligent professionals, many of whom have very high standards. Sharing an environment of unhealthy working practices with negative behaviour traits is unhealthy for everyone, and risks becoming common practice; this is something that we are working on to develop awareness, educate and change.

We want to endorse the message that unhealthy perfectionism and rumination lead to a downward spiral. Those affected by wellbeing issues at the Bar can impact the lives of their clerks as well during these negative periods. For example, we now know that a negative comment will stay with the recipient up to five times longer than a positive comment, which may lead to problematic working environments where negativity and criticism dominates.

I want clerks to be educated to recognise the three warning signs of mental distress: psychological (such as worry and anxiety); physiological (such as tiredness and aching muscles); and behavioural (such as eating or drinking to excess or tearfulness). The saving grace now is that if clerks do find themselves in this position, there is a bespoke resource immediately available to help.

Driving cultural change

Under my chairmanship the IBC will continue to showcase the site and its resources for clerks, and will combine that with other practical help to stop these situations from occurring in the first place. Alongside this, a further stated aim of my chairmanship is to develop a culture of mentoring and support for our members, the benefits of which were highlighted in the survey. I know that there are some really excellent clerks working at the Bar. The members of their chambers benefit from that, and I would like to see their clerking colleagues from all chambers benefit from that too – and for us to be well and supported at the same time.

The website was the first phase of delivery for the Wellbeing at the Bar project, and the IBC is committed to supporting the next stages and working together with the profession. We have started to change the culture in relation to how people approach mental health and wellbeing. For the future safeguarding of both clerks and barristers, it is important that we continue to build upon this work.

Contributor Nick Hill, Chairman of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks

Causes of stress

  • Managing high expectations from barristers, solicitors and clients.
  • Managing difficult personalities or bullying behaviour.
  • A high volume of workload; or intense periods of high workload.
  • Long-hours culture: being available out of hours or at weekends.
  • The reduction in boundaries between work and home due to technology.
  • The speed with which you have to make difficult decisions.
  • The Bar’s intolerance of mistakes leading to perfectionist behaviour in others.
  • Fear of reprisals if mistakes are made.

Often you don’t notice subtle changes in the way you feel, think or behave or you might try to ignore them, hoping they will go away of their own accord. However, these signs and symptoms provide valuable data; if you can identify stress at an early stage, there are tried and tested strategies available to you to help manage feelings of stress and counteract ill effects before they get worse.

Keeping well and dealing with stress

There are tools and resources available to keep you well, or to help if you are currently unwell or may be in the future. We know that being a clerk is a great job. It is often rewarding and exhilarating and brings great satisfaction. But is it also demanding and pressured.

  • Know the early warning signs to stop your stress levels developing into a chronic and intolerable state.
  • Confide in others and ask for help when you need it.
  • Be realistic with your performance level.
  • Set achievable goals.

Try some of our breathing techniques:

You will be able to provide the best service to your barristers, clients and colleagues when you are at your healthiest and when life and work are in balance. If you feel the balance slipping and stress becoming a normal part of your life, you can take action to bring things back on course.