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.