Happy new year

Bar wellbeing is now mainstream. Rachel Spearing started the movement in 2012, defeated naysayers and reflects on the journey

I am writing my final blog as Chair of the Working Group in the last days of December, juggling festive planning between deadlines and preparation of 2019 trials: amid this panic and chaos, I stop to write this blog!

Pausing to take a breath and to reflect, prioritising the wellbeing blog deadline amongst so many other responsibilities would have been considered anathema a couple of years ago. When we find ourselves under pressure we often cut out the very things that would actually provide respite and calm and the clarity and control that we all strive for drift further away. Simple exercises to manage panic, find calmness, and regain clarity can be found on the portal.

I have learned many things since I started the Wellbeing at the Bar initiative in 2012, which I hope is reflected in the host of portal resources, created in collaboration with specialist consultants and finessed by members of the Bar, clerks, and other staff together with other stakeholders working to support the profession.

I would like to end this year by reflecting upon some of them, their creation, their use and future development.

The power of research

Practice informs research and research informs practice. Lawyers work with evidence and in my view we were only able to make dynamic changes in attitudes to mental health & wellbeing after we gathered data via the resilience framework assessment back in 2014/15. It is important to keep these findings in context, as inevitably they can be time sensitive and so I encourage on-going analysis to keep ‘taking the temperature’ of the profession to identify trends and developments: gathering data in a collaborative and inclusive way with the support of experts to gather credible evidence is key in aiding our future work.

Knowledge sharing

Our work is proof that we can achieve far more together than individually. The Bar has always been a collegiate profession, we have demonstrated that sharing our knowledge and experience, and working together to create and adapt shared resources facilitates the successful use of those resources for the future. The portal has been accessed over 218,000 times since its October 2016 launch and has inspired Bar Associations in the US, Canada, Singapore and Australia. For example, we shared our research with two Australian states seeking to introduce similar initiatives for their membership and our leadership methodology has been adapted for others navigating similar challenges.

The Bar Council Certificates of Excellence for Wellbeing – and the ideas and activities within individual sets they showcase – provide guidance, inspiration and, importantly, a precedent and even permission for others seeking to alleviate the challenges and pressures around them.

Champions and leaders

From the students who told us of their fears, the juniors who spoke to their challenges, the Silks who shared their darkest worries and the judiciary who supported and reflected on their shared and lived experiences, I truly believe we have begun to challenge the perception, shared by 2 out of 3 people from the original data participants, that ‘showing signs of stress would be perceived as weakness’. The eminence and range of those who have shared their story is in itself evidence of the normality of the pressures and pains of our working environment and the challenges faced on a daily basis and it has greatly assisted in raising awareness that the need to incorporate self-care as a central part of practice management is a strength and never a weakness. The link between our physical and mental health, wellbeing and performance is now irrefutable.

Past and current leaders who have supported this important initiative have provided role models, reassurance and visibility. Previously only 9% of those surveyed felt that there was a positive visible leadership on this issue, but since then we have seen the Bar Council, Specialist Bar Associations, and all Inns of Courts presenting the findings, their response to the research, and individual initiatives to support the profession. These and other organisations across the profession – including staff associations such as the IBC and the LPMA – have joined the Bar Council Working Group to support a programme which has proved effective in evolving and responding to members’ needs, and safeguarding the future health and wellbeing of those in the profession.

It has been a huge privilege to found and lead the initiative. There are too many people to thank individually, but without the bravery of the 2,458 individuals who responded to the first Bar wellbeing survey we would have never gathered the evidence to underpin our work. There have been many who stepped up to support this work: the early voices who continued to encourage despite the naysayers have laid a strong foundation for future chairs to build upon.

As I step back into practice, I am indebted to the working group members over the years and all those who have supported us. I will do my best to continue to practise what I preach! Remember the basics: sleep, diet, exercise...

Finally, reflect positively not negatively: we have come such a long way, we will continue to progress and focusing on the triumphs rather than the tribulations makes the journey slightly kinder.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2019.

Rachel Spearing was Chair of Wellbeing at the Bar from 2014-18. She is a barrister at Serjeant’s Inn.

Join the resolution

As Nick Peacock takes over the reins as Chair, he pays tribute to Rachel for her inspirational lead and sets out his aspirations for the year ahead

In 2019 I am chairing the Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar (WATB) Working Group. It would be impossible to start my time as chair in any way other than by paying tribute to the outgoing chair, and indeed our only chair to date, Rachel Spearing. Rachel truly deserves to be called inspirational. She has led the Bar’s wellbeing movement from the front with true commitment, lending encouragement and support where needed, and somehow managing to keep smiling throughout. Fortunately, Rachel is staying on as a working group member. And we will still be helped by the amazing Sam Mercer and her Bar Council team, Kathy Wong and Shiryn Sayani. We should give huge thanks too to Onyeka Onyekwelu, moving to pastures new, for all her help on the website and in working group meetings. So, I will be standing, albeit perhaps wobbling vertiginously, on the shoulders of giants.

I have always thought that the Wellbeing at the Bar project is about wellbeing in its broadest sense – not just adverse mental health (although that forms a large part of our work), but being well, physically and mentally. Many members of the working group have their personal wellbeing stories to tell, and I am no different. I have spoken on the WATB website about the merits of counselling and recently I have had cause to reflect on lessons learned during those sessions, particularly that when your wellbeing levels drop, you have two sets of resources to draw on – external and internal.

Making best use of your resources

During this year, I would encourage people to think about the external resources available to them, to improve and maintain their wellbeing. On the working group, we would like to think that we have created one external resource which all barristers, and their staff, can draw on: the WATB website itself. It is designed to help and advise you if you want help or information, but also if you think you spot warning signs in others, and of course there are some tips on staying well. One of my aims by the end of this year is for all barristers to have looked at the website. At the moment when I make wellbeing presentations, I am hitting about 30-40% success in terms of people who have looked at the site on a show of hands, so there’s some way to go. After barristers, I am aiming at prospective barristers, ie pupils and bar students. Spread the word, please!

"One of my aims by the end of this year is for all barristers to have looked at the website… and in an ideal world, every set of chambers will have a wellbeing officer (or group)"

Another external resource which the working group has worked hard on recently is the Bar Council Employee Assistance Programme, in partnership with Health Assured and funded by Bar Mutual, the indemnity fund for barristers. You can read more about it on our website, but this resource is available to all self-employed barristers together with members of the IBC and LPMA. You can access assistance by calling the confidential telephone service (0800 169 2040 )to discuss emotional and practical problems. You will also have access to online services, providing information and assistance with common health concerns.

After that, external resources will vary from person to person, but they are likely to include talking about your pressures to life partners, family and friends, and out-of-work activities (walking, running, yoga, reading, extreme-ironing or anarchist-knitting – whatever it is that takes you away from your work pressures and gives you back some balance).

What about internal resources? By definition, this will be intensely personal. But, as a counsellor once pointed out to me during a low patch: ‘Well, you’ve made it through low times before, just remember that you can deal with this one too.’ In other words, you almost certainly already possess way more resilience (to use a word which divides the wellbeing community) than you might at first think.

Are you a leader, participant or sceptic?

Other aspirations for the coming year? In an ideal world, every set of chambers will have a wellbeing officer (or group), so I will be making a start on that. In any project like this there will be three broad groups of people: leaders, who make things happen; participants, more or less happy to be fellow travellers; and sceptics. My original involvement in the WATB project came about as a direct result of a sceptical remark by a colleague about the perceived merits of a project which simply in his view recognised that our working lives were stressful – we both remembered this remark recently, me because I started that day on the journey which leads me here, him because he now agrees that the project has some merit after all!

So, onwards into 2019. We will be publishing blog pieces on the website every month, putting on wellbeing presentations, and developing new initiatives. Come with us please, whichever group you’re in!

Nick Peacock is the Chair of the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group. He is a barrister at Hailsham Chambers.