I am not sure that I like the word ‘thrive’. I should do: what’s not to like about a word that means growing and developing strongly, being successful and fulfilled? Perhaps it feels slightly smug to me, and this piece is in no way intended to minimise the effort required to navigate these challenging times. What I have tried to do is draw together a few suggestions, based on my conversations with pupils and practitioners, as to how we can make our working lives better this year.

Resisting email overload and instant reply syndrome

I have a Pavlovian response to emails: I hear the ding of my iPhone or MacBook, and straight away I scramble to my inbox to see what awaits. According to recent statistics, roughly 306.4 billion emails are sent and received every day worldwide, and Wikipedia says the seed was sown by a computer engineer called Ray Tomlinson who sent the first email in 1971. Mr Tomlinson’s phlegmatic reply when asked to recall his first email message was: ‘The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.’ ‘Fair play,’ as Nessa from Gavin & Stacey would say. (Who would have thought that I could somehow drag Nessa into Counsel magazine?)

I would suggest that 2021 signals a good time for all of us at the Bar, definitely myself included, to try to resist email overload and instant reply syndrome. As a starting point, we could take the following four steps:

1. Unsubscribe from unwanted marketing emails.

2. Turn off new email alerts to avoid constant interruptions, and instead check our emails once every hour or at whatever intervals seem workable.

3. Think before pressing send, to avoid adding to the excessive volume of email traffic unless it is really necessary.

4. Be firm about saying that we are not available 24/7: many practitioners do this by stating as a footer to their emails or in an automatic reply that they do not read or respond to emails outside certain hours.

If we want to take this idea of switching off further, it is worth considering having a screen-free day every week: Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book The Four Pillar Plan has a useful section on working up to a digital detox.

Recording our achievements

If we were asked a year ago about the challenges at the Bar, there would be a long list even without throwing a pandemic into the mix. Undoubtedly COVID-19 has forced us all out of our comfort zones with how we work. With that in mind, it is worth keeping a record of any personal achievements, whether that is making your bed, managing to get through a remote hearing with your neighbour chain-sawing a tree with gusto in the background, or having something that even vaguely counts towards your five a day. I have started keeping mine in an app called Todolist. It is so easy to forget how far we have come in such difficult circumstances – most of us had not even heard of Zoom this time last year, let alone had the first clue how to conduct a remote video hearing – and keeping a list of achievements and positive feedback to re-read provides a real boost to our self-esteem.

Getting enough sleep

Going back to basics, most of us need around eight hours of good-quality sleep a night to function properly. Good-quality sleep boosts our immune systems, helps our brains to recover and revive themselves, and allows our minds to unwind and de-stress.

A 1997 study by Drew Dawson and Kathryn Reid from The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Australia compared the effects of fatigue and alcohol intoxication on a range of neurobehavioural tasks, and the results suggested that moderate levels of fatigue impair performance to an extent equivalent to, or greater than, levels of alcohol intoxication deemed unacceptable when driving, working and/or operating dangerous equipment. So we are actually doing our clients a disservice if we stay up all night preparing submissions: we would be much better off having a cut-off point and going to bed.

As busy professionals it is easy for us to feel we have no choice but to stay up and work, but Professor Colin Espie, Professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Oxford, says: ‘We must not trivialise sleep as if it were just a lifestyle choice, or something to do if we have time in our busy schedules. Sleep is a life-sustaining force, and a lack of sleep, whether through our neglect to give sleep enough space in our lives, or through having a sleep disorder, is hugely important.’

The NHS website has various useful resources for those of us who struggle with sleep: in general terms it is recommended that we keep regular sleep hours, make our bedrooms sleep-friendly and get on a wind-down curve before going to bed.

Walking in nature

Many of us were reminded during lockdown that walking in nature has a hugely stabilising effect on our physiology and mental health. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen that I was lucky enough to watch the progress of five cygnets hatched from mute swans last May, from when they were tiny and fluffy, through their gawky adolescent phase to when they grew proper feathers and cut parental ties.

Dr Bill Mitchell, a clinical psychologist, explains in his excellent book, Time To Breathe, that: ‘One reason why walking might make us feel good is that it appears to change our physiology, blocking the tendency to ruminate … Walking also leads to a number of cognitive benefits that may give us an advantage in dealing with the challenges of life and keeping us closer to our best mentally.’ As to the nature aspect, he points out that: ‘Regular contact with nature has a beneficial effect on depression and anxiety symptoms, diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease and longevity.’

We all have those days when we are immersed in a case, have to hunker down and feel that we cannot move from our desks, but a short walk to clear our heads is worth doing if at all possible.

Having some non-negotiables

When training BPTC students it has struck me that many of them feel that they have to give up the things they enjoy to focus on the Bar. When talking to various practitioners the message was loud and clear that we must keep some non-negotiables in our lives, ie the things which are important to us, which we enjoy or which make us feel good to provide respite from the demands of the job.

Accessing support

Finally, it is important that we access support whenever we need to:

  • Mentoring is very useful for building confidence if, for example, you are currently on parental leave, or are returning to practice. Further details are available from the Bar Council here. 
  • The Barristers’ Benevolent Association gives assistance to past and present practising members of the Bar and their dependants.
  • The Wellbeing at the Bar Portal has a wide range of resources, including information on issues such as excessive workload, perfectionism and stress, and it is regularly updated with current news and events related to wellbeing in the profession.
  • We have access to a free and confidential Assistance Programme which provides, amongst other things, counselling and emotional support, money management and debt support and online health and wellbeing resources including webinars, mini-health checks and four-week self-help programmes covering topics such as sleep, smoking cessation, hydration and healthy eating.

Good luck!