I woke up one morning about five years ago and thought: ‘I can’t go to work today.’

This was less than ideal, given that it was the second day of a trial in which I was defending someone charged with a series of sexual offences. I was due to cross-examine a child witness at 10am. What really struck me was the overwhelming physical resistance I felt throughout my body: this feeling of being unable to go to work wasn’t something that was confined to my thoughts, and it certainly didn’t feel like the occasional off-day that we all have. I had come to an abrupt, grinding halt.

What I didn’t recognise at the time was that I had been increasingly displaying all of the classic signs of burnout (feeling physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed). I knew that I was stressed; I knew that I worked really hard; I knew that I should probably take more time off. But I hadn’t truly appreciated the extent to which being a barrister had taken over my life. How had I got to the stage of working most evenings and every weekend without even realising it? What I knew as I dragged myself to court in tears on that Tuesday morning was that my life had to change. I ploughed on through the week, my client was acquitted and I sat down and had a long hard think about my future.

The first thing I did to try and get a sense of control over my workload was to decline new instructions. This felt like utter professional suicide at the time. I also diarised more holidays and I stopped using my time off as an opportunity to catch up on all of the work I hadn’t managed to shoe-horn in during my working week (and weekend). Out of office meant just that as far as emails were concerned.

This process of taking on less work was gradual and painful. I hadn’t appreciated how difficult it would be to turn away work, and in my mind I felt like a complete failure. Why couldn’t I cope with a full-time career at the Bar anymore? Was I useless at my job? How had I fallen out of love with a profession that had previously meant everything to me and had taken years’ worth of graft to even get into? What would my colleagues and my friends think of me? I just couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was absolutely hopeless and that I’d let myself down monumentally.

You probably don’t need me to say it, but there were other things going on in my life outside of work that were also a source of huge stress and anxiety for me. Just like everyone else, I have had my fair share of personal challenges. I made a point of being as open and honest as possible with my clerks about my position and I am extremely grateful to them for their continued kindness, understanding and support.

To say that I now work part-time would be untrue. Rather, I now work part-time as a barrister. I also work part-time running a business, Dotty’s Oils, with my mother. We host in-person and online workshops to teach others and share our knowledge of how to use essential oils. The content of the workshops varies greatly depending on what essential oils we showcase and what topics we cover (sleep, stress, anxiety, motivation are common themes) but they are always interactive and lots of fun. The experience couldn’t be further away from being in court and it has been a real tonic. I know there are plenty of people who think I’ve lost the plot or assume that this is just a hobby. It’s not. I have learnt new skills (proud moment alert: I built our website) and I have experienced the many highs and lows of starting a business from scratch.

Dotty’s Oils came about after a friend of mine suggested that I try using essential oils to improve my sleep, calm my anxieties and boost my overall sense of wellbeing. I gave them a try (somewhat reluctantly, ‘do you really think they can help me?!’), and I have never looked back. Using essential oils gave me a new perspective on many things and made me appreciate that there was more to life than driving myself into an early grave in a completely unpredictable and stressed-out environment. I set up the business because I needed to regain balance in my life and so that I could share my experience and knowledge with others who may also benefit from using essential oils.

Working two jobs can be tricky. I have to be very disciplined about planning ahead (as best I can) and diarising adequate time to complete paperwork, prepare for hearings and trials, put together and deliver bespoke essential oil workshops, and fulfil orders placed through my website. It’s not always plain sailing and clashes sometimes occur. I just have to try my best to make it work. I have learnt the hard way that it is absolutely not about the number of hours you put into a task that matters but rather the quality of work you produce during a given time. From the moment I began my legal career, as a paralegal, the importance of recording billable hours was instilled in me. Over time, my subconscious equated working longer hours with completing more work and therefore being more productive but it just doesn’t happen like that. Working inefficiently doesn’t benefit your lay and professional clients and it is harmful for your mindset. By setting boundaries, remaining focused, and being super organised I can achieve a lot. That’s not to say that I never work in the evenings or on weekends, it’s just that I am quite militant about ensuring I factor in downtime.

I’d say that, on balance, I am now a better barrister than I have ever been. Suffering from burnout forced me to refocus my priorities and gave me a real sense of perspective. I don’t have the answers to all of my problems and I don’t breeze through life without a care in the world. I still have to read and digest material that is traumatic and I still feel the pressure of performing well in court. What I now fully recognise, however, is that persistently working extended hours, in whatever job, is unsustainable and can lead to ill health in the long-term. I believe that I came very close to what I can only describe as a complete breakdown.

Whether it was taking on too many cases, not ensuring I had sufficient breaks, poorly managing my case load, or any other number of reasons I can think of, the truth is that I had put myself (albeit unwittingly) in a position where I had completely and utterly lost myself in my work. I know many other barristers have done the same. The silver lining is that it’s entirely possible to redress this imbalance when it occurs, and though it may be a constant effort to do so, it sure as anything delivers a far brighter outlook.

See also ‘A court system fit for big-league, part-time work’, James Hatt thinks the ‘unthinkable’ in Counsel’s July 2021 issue and proposes reforming the court system to tackle retention and revolutionise part-time working at the Bar.

Although rewarding and exhilarating the life and work of a barrister is too often demanding and pressured. When pressure becomes chronic you may experience some of the stress response symptoms outlined in a short film at: www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/staying-well. Other sources of help include: www.lawcare.org.uk; and www.samaritans.org (tel: 116 123).