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“A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.” ― Albert Einstein
While there are plenty of pills to sooth your flu, calm your nerves, and release tension headaches - we should all be doing as Einstein suggests and making a concerted effort to avoid the problem - rather than solve it when it manifests. Like the old adage says prevention is better than cure. Self-care, reducing stress, staying fit, and focusing on wellness, we should all be striving to seek to ensure an optimum level of health.
Barristers are no different to any other working person in that they have to juggle family life, young children, aging parents, births, deaths, marriages, good times and bad with their jobs. What is perhaps slightly different in the barrister population, is that the first few years of practice are characterised by few briefs and very little money. This creates two problems. In fledgling barristers, it can cause severe anxiety around getting work and getting paid. However, it has a longer lasting effect. It creates a desire never to say no to work and a hunger for more work, that even some of the busiest Senior Counsels will tell you, never leaves. This inability to say no to work can have a detrimental effect on one’s health and overall well-being. In effect there are anxieties at all stages of a barrister’s career but having very little money and a lot of time to worry and having lots of work and no down time are two of the biggest challenges for a barrister.
Many rewarding careers come hand in glove with the potential to create anxiety-the issue isn’t anxiety and stress - the real issue is how we deal with anxiety and stress. In psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk, viewed by over 17 million people, she encourages people to make stress their friend – to learn to enjoy the benefits or the rush that a certain level of stress brings. We have all experienced the benefits of stress at some stage, the nerves experienced before an application make you prepare for it all the more-thus netting a positive outcome. However, research now shows that when you’re under stress, the brain releases cortisol-and cortisol is toxic, so living in a permanent state of stress is not good long-term for either your physical or mental health.
Many barristers are thinkers, in some cases over thinkers, who may find it hard to switch off from a conundrum raised during the day, or to stop focusing on anxieties thrown up as part of the job. In order to stay in balance and to give ourselves every fighting chance of avoiding stress and anxiety it is essential to take exercise, eat well, and get sufficient sleep. However, for some people this may not be enough and every barrister should be aware of The Bar of Ireland’s Consult a Colleague initiative and Law Care. Both services provide a confidential listening service specifically tailored for barristers and their needs.
I recall having 3 young children in the early years of my practice and sometimes it seemed that there just weren’t enough hours in the day, if you are finding it difficult to find the time to exercise try to build it into your daily routine. Walk or cycle to work in the morning, get off the bus three stops earlier, or walk at lunchtime. Staying physically fit is important, but it has the additional benefit of burning off stress. Make time to meet family and friends – it is important to stay connected to family and friends, and when stress does hit these are often the people who will be best placed to give you a helping hand.
It is important to be aware of those around you, and to be ready to step in and offer a helping hand if you see a colleague struggling either with their workload or personal issues. Assuming severe stress will get better on its own is a dangerous assumption for both the person experiencing the stress and those around the person.
Putting your physical and mental health first is important for a long and enjoyable career. Employing strategies to stay well and avoid ill health pay dividends-especially when stressful times do strike-you will be better placed to deal with them. Technology can be your friend when you are trying to stay as healthy as possible. There are free meditation apps, apps that count calories, apps that measure fitness, apps that help you cook inexpensive nutritious meals - and many of these apps are free or very inexpensive.
In an age when everyone is always “on”, contactable by mobile phone or through e-mail it is important to put time aside for yourself to relax. Sometimes “doing nothing” is not a waste of time, it is essential downtime to allow ourselves to recharge our batteries.
Mema Byrne is a practicing Barrister and author of Landlord and Tenant - The Commercial Sector (2014). Mema is an adjudicator with the Residential Tenancies Board, a Chairperson with the Mental Health Commission and also sits on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal. Mema is currently on the Bar Council's Resilience and Performance Committee.
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