Stress at Work: wellbeing at the Bar

Mental health in the workplace has increasingly attracted publicity over recent years, leading to a long-overdue recognition of the need for dedicated stress management in the legal sector.

According to figures just published by the Health and Safety Executive, 526,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, with 12.5m working days lost due to work-related stress in 2016 to 2017. The HSE singles out the legal professional as having statistically “significantly higher rates” than other sectors of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, with between 1,670 and 4,350 cases.

It’s well-known that a moderate amount of stress is beneficial to productivity, but when the balance is tipped so that the stress becomes a problem – it’s time to act decisively. The Bar has been notoriously slow to recognise the problem of stress in the workplace, but this has been changing – with the Bar Council behind a major drive to improve wellbeing at the Bar.

Wellbeing at the Bar
In its major Wellbeing Survey, the reports of which were published two years ago, the Bar Council found that two in every three barristers believed that showing signs of stress equals weakness. If this is still the reality on the ground, the profession needs to take a reality check. Whilst mental health is no longer quite the taboo subject it once was, the Bar Council’s findings show that the profession still has some way to go.

There have also been recent warnings of the various mental health issues facing young barristers in particular. Young barristers are heavily in debt and vulnerable to depression, the chair of the Bar Council’s youth committee has stated. This is no big surprise given junior barristers start their career with an average debt of £30,000-£70,000.

The Bar Council’s Wellbeing research identified a number of factors, many of which came as no big surprise. They included insufficient sleep and fatigue, not enough time to eat, financial worries linked to fee levels, cash flow and gaining work, as well as work pressure and work/life balance.

The Bar Council is now playing a huge part in tackling stress in the workplace for its members. Just over a year ago, in conjunction with the Inns of Court and the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks, it launched the Bar Portal – a website dedicated to providing support and best practice to barristers, clerks and chambers on wellbeing and mental health issues.

The Bar Council makes clear that it recognises the reality that barristers, as well as clerks and chambers' staff, are exposed to emotionally and psychologically challenging environments on a daily basis. Through the portal, it offers barristers support and assistance through their professional difficulties and crises. This includes online resources, working with third parties, such as LawCare and MIND, and expanding and supporting Bar mentoring programmes. An important development is that chambers and other organisations now have the chance to be recognised for their wellbeing practices, through ‘Certificates of Recognition’.

And the first set of Certificates of Recognition has just been awarded by the Bar Council, with recipients including Littleton Chambers, Gray’s Inn, Guildhall Chambers and the Chancery Bar Association. For a full list of recipients, see here.

These certificates are formal recognition by the Bar Council of efforts made to support the wellbeing of barristers, clerks and chambers’ staff. There were just 30 applications for the first round of certificates, but the Bar Council is now accepting more Certificate applications (to be assessed every quarter). Applicants must have a wellbeing policy/practice in place, and be able to demonstrate their commitment to promoting wellbeing in the workplace. (Note that the current period for applications closes 1 February 2018).

Criminal ‘crisis’
It’s not just the stress from lack of sleep or a poor work life balance, or from financial worries, and the work itself, that can make stress intolerable. For many barristers, the “physical dimension” must not be ignored, according to the wellbeing officer of the Criminal Bar Association, Sarah Vine.

Vine, a criminal defence barrister at 187 Fleet Street, has warned of a crisis in the profession, and says: “We work in poorly maintained buildings, with no catering facilities, where conference rooms are made unavailable to us for ‘operational’ reasons, where we have no natural light and the air-conditioning/heating is controlled off-site. None of these failings do anything to ameliorate the stress.”

Though the state of court buildings in the UK is outside of the control of the professional itself, barristers directly affected need help. It’s only by highlighting the wide range of stress factors in the workplace that workers can be effectively supported to alleviate – or at least manage - the stress.

Sexual harassment and stress
On an end note, the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal has opened a can of worms leading to allegations on both sides of the Atlantic. The legal profession is not immune from sexual harassment, and a secret report following claims made in September 2016 of sexual harassment experienced by female barristers at Matrix Chambers has now been leaked. According to The Times, an independent report concluded there were “institutional failings” in the handling of the complaints.

And it’s not just Matrix chambers: last year, the Bar Council released figures showing that two in five barristers survey suffered harassment and discrimination at work.

Counsel working in an environment where they have been the victim of alleged sexual harassment or assault will invariably find it extremely stressful, and chambers have a duty of care to deal proactively with complaints. The Matrix episode should act as a warning to chambers to ensure complaints are handled properly, and complaints properly supported. Note that Bar Council guidance on dealing with sexual harassment in chambers sets out clearly what should be done when an allegation of sexual harassment has been made against a member of chambers or staff.

Maintained a culture of trust and openness in chambers that supports mutual respect in the workplace will go a long way to alleviate stress, whatever the causes. Barristers are urged to play their part by being open and honest when they need help and support, and to provide the same support to their colleagues.



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