The need to foster good mental health and wellbeing (MH&W) is now widely accepted at the Bar. This is a unique profession and any chambers considering the adoption of a generic corporate or law firm policy should think again. The process of pupillage, the murky issue of self-employment and the lack of infrastructure such as human resources in chambers means that any policy needs to be drafted with expert knowledge of the Bar as well as expert mental and organisational health input.

The right conditions

Sets of chambers are like ecosystems, with many moving parts and subsystems, all of which interact. There is no individual who stands alone, unaffected by anyone or anything else. When a plant droops or starts to discolour, rather than locating the problem in the plant itself, we change its conditions: sunlight, heat, water and soil. If you repot your plant in soil that is too acidic or too alkaline, or if you give it too much or too little water, it will continue to shrivel. It is only when we find the right conditions that the plant will thrive again.

This is the premise upon which policies should be built – a recognition that the causes of, and responsibility for, wellbeing in chambers are not located solely in the individual; an understanding that the ethos and culture within chambers is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of all who work within it. Most importantly, if there is not a culture of wellbeing in chambers which will support the MH&W policy, then the policy can cause more harm than good.

Imposing a policy into a workplace that lacks the necessary accompanying culture will set members, clerks, staff and chambers up for grievances and disputes that would otherwise not exist. Once a policy is instituted, expectations in line with that policy are created. It is impossible for expectations around, for example, support, work-life balance, the treatment and working hours of pupils, relationships between barristers, clerks and staff, to be met when the culture of a set is contrary to the measures set out in a policy. Indeed, in this scenario it is better to have no MH&W policy.

To illustrate this with an example that unfortunately I still hear too often: when competition between barristers in a set of chambers is rife and there is kudos placed upon extreme working hours, then for some, burnout and breakdown is inevitable and no amount of therapy, medication or time off sick will return someone to health. Nor will it be possible to create a cohesive, supportive and nurturing environment in which all in chambers are able to perform at their best and fulfil their potential. Thus, in these circumstances, even a well-intentioned MH&W policy is at the very best, a tick-box exercise destined to fail.

Understanding the key concepts

At the core of a robust and effective policy will be a set of key concepts which are clearly defined. This is easier said than done.

Wellbeing is a non-specific, subjective term, used broadly to describe a positive state in which an individual is thriving physically and mentally both in their own mind and in the minds of others. It is the ‘cherry on top of the cake’. Good mental health is the foundation for wellbeing and without it, achieving wellbeing is not possible.

Mental health as a concept is much more than the absence of mental illness. It includes subjective wellbeing, competence, ability to exercise autonomy, fulfil one’s role(s) and intellectual and emotional potential, as well as having the ability to cope with the challenges that life inevitably brings. Having good mental health does not render us immune from difficulties such as feeling stressed, pressured, anxious, sad, bereft or distressed. Rather, it is having a toolbox of strategies and techniques with which to cope and a support network, within and out of work, to aid coping which is protective against episodes of burnout, breakdown and mental illness.

The relationship between performance at work and a stable, happy home life is symbiotic. Mental health episodes or crises tend to occur when multiple factors accumulate and become overwhelming. We too often focus on work as being a source of stress and blame it for our difficulties. Indeed, life at the Bar is often stressful and some stress is inevitable. Work, however, can also be a huge source of support and friendship, the importance of which is greatest during times of distress and this needs to be kept in mind when considering how MH&W are best supported in chambers. One of the significant losses during and since the pandemic is the decrease in social contact, connection and camaraderie and the increased social isolation from working at home.

The interplay between performance and mental health is significant; poor mental health invariably leads to poorer performance. The issue of taking time off work due to mental health issues is more complex than at first it seems, as absence from work can often be counter-productive for psychological health, especially where anxiety is present. A good policy will address this, though these concepts are tricky to unpick and put into a policy document which guides behaviour.

Embedding the ethos

Returning to the issue with which I started, the policy must set out the ethos of chambers – one which takes the MH&W of its barristers, clerks and staff seriously; provides a positive and supportive working environment conducive to good mental health, and to eradicate stigma or discrimination when members or staff suffer from mental health problems. The policy needs to provide a framework within which chambers encourage and facilitate working practices and services that support wellbeing. To do this, the policy needs to draw upon good practice in a flexible rather than prescriptive fashion.

A good policy should aim to establish an effective and consistent approach to the promotion and management of MH&W and to protect the health, safety and welfare of all who work in chambers. This means that the responsibility for health and wellbeing at work belongs to everyone in chambers. The expectations that chambers, barristers and staff have of each other in the promotion and management of MH&W in the workplace should be set out.

Factors that can influence whether people will have a positive or negative relationship with work include relationships between staff and barristers, within and between teams, with elements of the running of chambers, work-life balance, having an income to meet more than just basic needs, principles of equality and diversity, and awareness of any health issues and whether they are taken seriously. Of course, a MH&W policy is complementary to other established chambers’ policies such as equality and diversity, parental leave and disciplinary.

External support and review

For best practice, every chambers should have a link with an external, specialist psychologist or psychiatrist with whom they can discuss concerns generally and about individuals in confidence, as and when they arise. This includes drafting and annually reviewing a robust MH&W policy.

Having this arrangement in place is multifunctional: it provides safeguarding to chambers, a direct route to the assessment of mental health issues and how to approach them on an organisational or individual level, guidance on steps chambers can take to help (rather than hinder) and speedy referral to appropriate clinicians for treatment. Finally, it is much more cost effective than firefighting and dealing with the trauma and fallout of poor wellbeing, mental health episodes, poor staff retention and high barrister and staff turnover.