PHILIP MCCORMACK: All eyes on the prize

What with Simon Cowell’s weight loss and the news that bacon sandwiches do not, in fact, cure hangovers I wouldn’t expect you to believe that wellbeing has been the sole topic of conversation in Chambers – but it’s up there. It’s now a permanent item on our meeting agendas and, as the pieces below demonstrate, the articles in the November and December issues of Counsel have at least got some of us thinking about looking after ourselves and each other, and Fawzia’s case just brings home how important making changes can be. There’s obviously more that we can and need to do as individuals and as Chambers, but it feels like we’re heading in the right direction.

JEREMY HALL: Floating trial

In the olden days, the way to get over a crappy day in court involved pinching other people’s cigarettes, becoming tired and emotional in pubs, and eating takeaway food far too close to bedtime. Luckily, ‘wellbeing’ has come to our rescue, with healthier ways to manage stress. Witness the panoply of programmes, policies and discussions. Enforcement is surely around the corner.

Here in Chambers, a masseur attends with all the mundanity of the photocopier repairer. The silks have taken up ballroom dancing and gyrotonics. Furrowed brows have been replaced by the faces you see on improbably cheery children in Soviet propaganda posters.

Time for me to get in on some wellbeing action! But what? Luckily, I have a friend who knows almost everything. ‘Floatation session, Jeremy?’ Genius.

The website looked brilliant: relaxed beautiful cyborgs emerging from pastel-shaded pods (pictured left). The promise of ‘unlocking your best self with float therapy’. I tried to banish the thought of lying in someone else’s tepid bathwater in bolted-down darkness. A few clicks later I was off to Floatworks in Angel.

A charming man called Jay showed me the facilities. You get your own room with its own pod. It looks like a large car roofbox with a clamshell lid, containing about two feet of highly salinated water. You can float with the light on and the lid open, but you’re encouraged to cocoon yourself in blackened silence for the full hour, which is what I bravely did. Calming music accompanies you for the first ten minutes, but after that all your senses are effectively banished.

‘It’s quite difficult to switch off and think about nothing for an hour,’ said Jay, but I got the hang of it eventually, and floated my way into relaxed bliss. I slept like the dead that night. My next session is booked.

VINCENT DENHAM: Wellbeing high on the agenda

In April of this year, Chambers introduced a formal Wellbeing Policy. This Policy is certainly seen by our Management Committee as being of equal importance to those that are more regulatory in nature; we recognise that a failure to promote a healthy lifestyle may lead to ill-health, days absent through sickness, lost productivity and reduced ability to concentrate or work at all.

Members of 42 Bedford Row, and their staff, spend many hours at work. In both communities, the work is often demanding and pressured and can also be isolating.

We have three threads to the programme:

  • An employee assistance scheme for all members and staff. This offers unlimited telephone, online and (if necessary) face-to-face advice and counselling on a whole range of personal issues that can lead to stress and mental illness. These include drug/alcohol/gambling addiction, relationship breakdown, financial worries, employment issues (such as bullying or disciplinary matters), health and sickness, housing, bereavement and loss, family issues (disability, teenagers, special needs) and many more.
  • A programme of in-house massage sessions from a visiting masseuse giving chair-based massages to members and staff. This focuses on shoulders, neck and upper back muscles and reduces tension and stress from sitting in front of a screen for prolonged periods. These sessions are always overbooked and we are looking to extend them.
  • A third element is an upcoming set of mental health training sessions for clerks and staff to enable them to understand better how to identify and work with people who have suffered, or are suffering, from stress related illness.

While the focus may naturally be on barristers, it is important to remember that staff also feel pressure from clients, members of chambers and colleagues. It is important that they feel able to speak out and say so.

FAWZIA KING: Fall in love with fitness

‘Wellbeing’. Not just a word. To me it means a state of being well, both mentally and physically. I have taken it seriously long before it became fashionable to talk about it. Six years or so ago it became apparent that all that rushing from one court to another, preparing cases late into the night, little sleep and rubbish food on the run had taken its toll. I frequently felt as if I was drowning. I realised that going to a Pilates class once a week was not going to cut it and far more drastic measures were required.

My introduction to West London Fitness and my new personal trainer Karl (who is also a professional rugby player) was a huge shock to the system. I had never understood people who spoke of exercise and its benefits with evangelical fervour and I was frankly terrified at the prospect of training in a gym. I’m not going to lie, it was tough to begin with and there were days when I didn’t want to go to the gym at 7pm or early in the morning at weekends. But I persevered and in a very few weeks I started losing weight, my head was clearer and I felt less under pressure. The more exercise I did, the more I wanted to do. One evening a week with Karl turned into three evenings a week as I grew fitter and stronger.

I then discovered my other major love – spin classes. These involve indoor cycling in a dark studio with lights and very loud powerful music – all the highs of clubbing without a drop of alcohol and the perfect companion to training in the gym. And suddenly I had become that woman who speaks of exercise and its benefits with fervour, because it’s all true.

The footnote to this story is that earlier this year I was diagnosed with a very early form of breast cancer. I have had major surgery but I was back in the gym three weeks after my operation. Being fit has made all the difference to the speed of my recovery and my regular personal training and spin sessions help me to maintain that all-important balance.