Wellbeing fatigue

Enough. I’ve had too much wellbeing. Like that moment you realise you’ve had one square too far in your mission to demolish that giant bar of Dairy Milk you picked up at the garage – I feel rather nauseous now.

WARNING : Don’t read this post in the hope of a warm fuzzy wellbeing. Go buy a big bar of Dairy Milk and get your serotonin rush that way. In fact, have some Dairy Milk to hand to comfort eat with during or after this miserable grinch of a post.

There has been an imperceptibly building sense in the pit of my stomach for a while now, that our current obsession for all things wellbeing is in fact somewhere on a spectrum between hopelessly naive and borderline delusional. I had been wondering if I should try and purge it in a blog post, but thought it would pass, like a wave of nausea does.

It did go off a bit, but today really did me in. Today I went into chambers where I found a giant stack of four months worth of Counsel magazine, Family Affairs and other assorted legal journals and legal industry mags. This afternoon I’ve diligently waded through them all, ingesting page after page of wellbeing advice, articles about diversity, recruitment and retention, the gender pay gap, pieces about the pros and cons of working from home, the digital bar, tips for digital working (2 screens a must), working from home, maintaining work life balance and a reminder of how great it is that in the Family sphere, our President is leading from the top with clear guidance about reinstating professional boundaries on our work life to maintain wellbeing.

It’s all baloney, of course. I once had an optimistic rose tinted view – perhaps 9 months ago, when remote working was starting to be practically doable without encountering the sort of frustrating problems that bring on the urge to lob the laptop out of the window – that the silver lining of covid might be a revolution in the way we work, might help us to break down the deep cultural need to bang on about how busy we all are, to compete for who can send an email at the most bonkers time of the night, all as some sort of pathetic proxy for success – maybe then I thought that there was some emergent cultural change and maybe we’d all emerge healthier in 2021 when covid was over.

Well, chaps, I hate to break it to you but its 2021 and covid isn’t over. More to the point I’ve given up running, put on a stone and have gone right back to the bad old days of taking on too much work. I’m trying to look after myself, of course – I realised I was overheating somewhat in early April and when a chance arose as a result of 2 trials coming out I bagged those days for R&R and consequently haven’t done a lot of work in April. If I’m honest I don’t feel a lot better. And now I’m just fed up, because I am constantly confronted with the cognitive dissonance between the wellbeing talk and the reality on the ground. Frankly, you can shove your top tips in the confidential waste.

A reminder if I may : before lockdown we were in crisis from a workload point of view. So said our leaders. So said us. We were already talking a lot about wellbeing, but not in truth doing a great deal about it. We were ‘working up’ to making actual change (just like I’m ‘working up’ to my first run after lapsing, as I have been for several months now – as I type I note somewhat passively that my left trainer is half way down the garden in the rain where the dog took it yesterday, having been chewing it lovingly for several weeks). To borrow from social work, we were in the pre-contemplative stage of the cycle.

Lockdown hasn’t removed any of the pre-existing, underlying issues – there hasn’t been any real change. I bet you’ve voluntarily extended your working day on at least 3 occasions since last March to attend a webinar about wellbeing when you could have been watching rubbish telly or spending time with the kids – but actually, is your wellbeing any better than it was in March 2021? No. It isn’t. You’ve relapsed – you’re overworking again, your boundaries between work and off work are as blurred and dysfunctional as they ever were, possibly more so. You haven’t sustained it any more than I have. Because the pull is too great and we all cave. Because we are committed professionals.

Here’s what I’ve (finally) learnt due to the pandemic : the problems that were frying our resilience and longevity are structural not internal to us as individuals – take away the ‘look how busy I am b***s**t’ and there is still a major problem. We’re all talk and no action because ultimately we as individuals are almost powerless.

Look, I’m marginally better at saying ‘No’ than I was, I’ve decided it would be good to see a counsellor for ‘supervision’ as a sort of wellbeing insurance policy, and I am making the most of working from home where it offers benefits. But the truth is, I’m still committed to my job and my clients and to doing justice – and neither being marginally better at saying ‘No’ nor letting off steam to a counsellor once a month alters the fundamentally messed up structure of our profession, the fundamentally knackered state of the family justice system, the inherently demanding nature of the job, or the requirement for long unpredictable hours. None of those modest adjustments to my own way of responding to the job changes the fact that the system and its people are chronically overburdened, underfunded and under resourced. Or that the content of the work takes an inevitable emotional toll.

And I also bet you have noticed a slippage back from those long days of summer 2020 when every judge insisted that everyone absolutely must stretch their legs for 10 minutes in every hour and we must not on any account sit after 4pm, so that we could go off for a reparatory G&T in the garden when the hearing was over – to hearings at 9.00 or 9.30 and 4.00 and 4.30 and advocates meetings before and after that, and the expectations increasing, because we must all do our bit and well, ‘What else are we to do, Ms Reed?’. I bet you don’t get your 10 minute leg stretch now (after a period of reminding judges it was time for a break only to receive a mildly irritated response that actually no we should press on, I’ve given that up too). This slippage was why the President issued his guidance in the Road Ahead in the new year. I remind myself that he had said early on in the first lockdown that wellbeing must be our priority and I was complaining in December that hadn’t worked and we needed a firmer line :


The Road Ahead guidance came shortly after and yet here I am again, complaining. Again. In spite of that absolutely clear guidance. In spite of more wellbeing top tips than you’ve had briefs.

But it remains true that fine words about wellbeing are a waste of breath when they are not implemented on the ground. Complaints that this guidance is being ignored through the continuation of the early morning and late afternoon hearings that are so difficult for all of us on wellbeing grounds, and which are particularly so for those responsible for the care of others, predominantly women – are a waste of breath too.

Because this is a circle that can’t be squared. There aren’t enough judges or slots in the diary to list everything between 10 and 4 within a sensible timeframe. Someone’s welfare has to be compromised here : will it be the lawyers, the judges or the parents and children waiting for interminable periods for someone to make a decision that can keep them safe or enable them to move on with their life? Will it be all of them? How can a DFJ implement this guidance in good conscience if it means a delay of several months in each individual case? The circle cannot be squared.

I’m tired of making the argument that if I burn out or the judge burns out and is off sick, or if my opponent makes a mistake through overwork – or god forbid if the judge makes a wrong decision through overwork – that will have been a false economy. I’m tired of doing that on behalf of the more junior lawyers who aren’t able to speak out, only to have colleagues look at me like I have said something heretical when I suggest that maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t keep working this way – as if I’m just being selfish in arguing for sustainable working to keep the system afloat (read the Road Ahead – its exactly what it says!). Because every time in the face of the individual case, the needs of the individual child or family it has to give way. We are expected to put the client first – we do put the client first. We rarely say no. And in truth, the day I routinely put myself first is the day I give up this wretched amazing wonderful awful job. And so, we bugger on, packing in as much as we can until we feel we are on the brink and go away to recover. And we start again. And every so often one of us will fail to spot it coming (the palpitations, the rising blood pressure, the hyperventilation) and will be off sick properly, or for good. Burnt out.

I’m not giving up on my own wellbeing, I’ll do what I need to do to be able to keep doing my best for my clients – I’ll book days out to ensure I don’t crash and burn from overwork. I’ll manage a few out of hours hearings if I have to in existing cases, but I will avoid them where possible. I’ll try and keep my eye out for those less able than me to say ‘No’ to their clerks, the judge, their boss or their instructing solicitor.

But I am giving up on platitudes and stupid optimism and the pretence we are making a dent in this. Those other swimmers you see out there in choppy waters – quite a few of them are not waving but drowning. And there aren’t any lifeboats (even the purple lifeboat has a hole below the water line).

I’m done with wellbeing webinars, and I’m done with pretending things are changing. There is no change beyond the slow creep of me getting older, greyer and gruffer about everything. I am in myself okay by the way, for those who might care enough to ask – and I will make sure I remain so. But I am crosser and less tolerant than I would like to be about this, because the situation is a daily reminder of a painful truth, which is that society doesn’t value what we do. Just remember, even those who talk genuinely and with enthusiasm about our collective wellbeing aren’t empowered to change anything any more than we are : this is the job, the system is broken. Nobody is going to fund the system so all of us (lawyers, judges (from the bottom to the top), social workers) can all do our jobs well, reliably and without unplanned absence or loss of skilled and brilliant people from our ranks. Value yourselves by looking after yourselves you wonderful people.

7 thoughts on “Wellbeing fatigue

  1. Dear lord but I am glad I retired in July 2019. I never liked working from home (although I wouldn’t be missing the commute) and I feel for you all. Good luck with the Return.

    But lay off the Dairy Milk. Dark chocolate is REAL chocolate just as Irish is REAL whiskey. With an e before the y.

  2. I’m the person who provides wellbeing for the NE circuit of Barristers and I have to say…pass the Dairy Milk.

    I loved the blog. Granted, I was a bit miffed about the “ditch the wellbeing seminars” message. They are a large part of what I do and apart from being quite proud of them, I need my job… other than that, I couldn’t agree more with so much of what you say. I just hope people read it properly and carefully and don’t simply scan the headline.

    The slip back to dysfunctional working culture in this fundamentally knackered justice system is exhausting and disheartening. I feel it too, but – and I mean this kindly…what did we expect? It’s taken hundreds of years (or around hundred if you’re a woman) for the system to get this dysfunctional – 9 months in a pandemic isn’t going to cut it when it comes to turning the tide.

    But it’s a start.

    And if we are going to continue, I would argue we need to maintain our focus on wellbeing. Progress can be slow and momentum is hard to maintain but ditching the wellbeing will only deplete our resources. I was pleased to see that in practice, you know this. You continue to see a counsellor for supervision and you’re making the most of working from home where it offers benefits. I hope other people follow your lead. Where I work, the seminars are a really good, accessible starting point for people to think about accessing exactly this kind of support and advice. I have had many a helpline call, precisely because someone has heard me in a seminar and this has, and I don’t exaggerate here, on occasion, potentially saved lives and very often kept people from leaving their careers at the bar.

    That said, you are quite right, fine words about wellbeing are a waste of breath when they are not implemented on the ground. You refer to social work, which has, as a profession, known that for years. It has given us a model (Thompson) that highlights change can only be made if we improve things on a personal, social and structural level (supporting your point about platitudes being useless if they aren’t matched with change on the ground). But personal wellbeing is still crucial, not instead of advocating for and implementing structural change but in order to maintain the energy to be able to.

    Research into SW has shown that the average time before burnout is around 7 years. Those who maintained high emotional intelligence, high empathetic concern and low emotional distress, however, lasted significantly longer and thereby could progress to more influential positions, positively affecting the culture. They were also more effective, successful and healthier. And guess what? Maintaining high emotional intelligence and empathetic concern but low emotional distress requires self-care and engagement in wellbeing practices.

    As a trained social worker as well as a psychotherapist, the work I do with the NE Circuit is underpinned by this knowledge. And it reaps rewards. The work we have done around wellbeing has equipped people to remain in their jobs as barristers for long enough to progress and (this is my dearest wish), be in positions of influence where they can contribute to cultural change and healthier professional practices.

    You are right, as individuals we are almost powerless. But we aren’t a collection of individuals and (don’t throw your shoe at me), the wellbeing seminars illustrate this. In mine, people have come together and increased their personal levels of wellbeing but they have also identified cultural and structural barriers to their progress at the bar. Discussions in seminars have led to participants contributing to real change in their respective chambers, on the wider circuit and nationally at the bar. So please don’t dismiss the wellbeing seminars; done well, they bring people together and influence real, on the ground change and when we do that, we aren’t as powerless.

    I know were all exhausted, the pandemic is still impacting, change hasn’t happened as quickly as people had hoped, but now is not the time to give up. You talk about caving in the fight to maintain personal wellbeing, “because we are committed professionals”. I think we continue in the efforts to maintain personal wellbeing because we are committed professionals. We do this knowing we won’t always succeed, we do this knowing we will often still put others’ needs first because we work in a failing system, we do this knowing we are swimming against a tide but we do this in full knowledge that if we don’t, we won’t have the energy, longevity or ability to progresses in our careers to a point where we can help to improve the system and create a healthier culture at the bar.

    So, in (almost) your words, I urge your readers to value yourselves by keeping on looking after yourselves (and thereby your profession), you lovely people.

  3. catherine fagan

    Thank you for saying this – it completely resonates every single word

  4. Emily Driver

    Many of the family bar have this problem for several reasons internal to themselves and their own personalities but the great big elephant in the room is the structure of barristers’ chambers. They are run by a culture of obedience to the chambers’ profit and to the diary management of the clerk, who must be placated at all costs. That ethos is inculcated from the start of pupillage and it is hard to shake off. Chambers usually charge such a high rent, or commission for taking work, that legal aid practitioners feel they have to overwork in order to make ends meet.
    If you want to improve your wellbeing instantly, become a sole practitioner. No commission; breaks and holidays whenever you want; you don’t feel obliged to take the stupid and greedy step of attending two listings on one day; and you get away from the office politics. You end up about 25% better paid and your work life balance is fab.
    I wish some of the family bar would stop complaining about wellbeing as if they are helpless victims and start to realise this is an independent, self-employed profession which has the privilege to arrange and pay for all the support it needs. It is providing a paid service to individual clients, not delivering heroism to the needy masses.

  5. My emoji response was in relation to the “greedy” comment from the commenter one up ?? from here.
    For myself, the article was spot on.
    How ridiculous is it that one feels a sense of relief that one party requires participation directions including a quick break – as this is now the only way we escape the screen!!?
    I am tethered to my desk. There is no other way of describing it.

  6. […] Wellbeing fatigue [Pink Tape] […]

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