Doing a solitary job in a busy world is one thing, but doing a solitary job in a solitary world is quite another – Mohsin Zaidi discusses the impact of lockdown on the mental health of the Bar and why we should all be talking about it
I chose the headline for this article before committing pen to paper. It seemed too tempting not to be completely open otherwise. To do what we as advocates are so good at; taking something difficult and transforming it into the presentable. I’m not talking now about legal argument but about the challenges that come with being in our profession. Challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. And I don’t mean the seismic task of keeping our justice system going but the subtle task of finding the will to keep ourselves going. I’m talking about mental health at the Bar.
At the beginning of March 2020 my fiancé and I were putting the final touches to plans for our upcoming wedding, scheduled for 4 April. We were doing last minute shopping for our honeymoon and I was also gearing up for the publication of a memoir at the end of May. This is all to say that between April and May my work diary was completely clear and intentionally so.
By the middle of March discussions about a first dance and seating plans fell away, replaced by circular conversations around whether the wedding would go ahead at all. In what felt like a rapid blur, it was cancelled, quickly followed by the honeymoon and publication date of the book. Then we were locked down. I had nowhere to go but, more significantly, nothing to do.
I love the freedom of being self-employed. But in that moment it left me feeling exposed, as though I were heading into a storm with no anchor. Some may say this anxiety was illogical but so many of those torturous feelings are. That doesn’t make them any less real. Although I was reluctant to acknowledge it even to myself, for the first time I questioned my decision to leave private practice at a magic circle firm.
Despite all of this, I was one of the lucky ones. I was not sick, nor did I have loved ones dying in hospitals or care homes. I had a roof over my head and some savings to protect my partner and I from the weeks, months, possibly years of uncertainty to follow. But being one of the lucky ones made it more difficult to acknowledge that things were not alright. Thanks to the support of my clerks, the fears I had about never working again were gradually assuaged. There was an immense sense of relief that came with work, with having something to do and, frankly, with being able to earn a living again.
But unpredictability of life at the Bar was substituted simultaneously by the unpredictability of life more generally and the mundane repetitiveness of not being allowed to go outside. I noticed that working from home all of the time left me feeling drained in a way I was unaccustomed to. And the hours were longer because I allowed them to be. The emails followed me to bed, because I didn’t see why they shouldn’t. If, before COVID, the allocation of time were encapsulated into a series of hourglasses, lockdown had the effect of smashing them into pieces, removing any sense of distinction and allowing work to seep into every part of our lives, like grains of sand impossible to separate. It felt like there was no longer any such thing as a weekend and sleep was regularly interrupted by my restless mind.
In a recent conversation, I remarked that I hated lockdown. The colleague with whom I was speaking was surprised by this, because my book was eventually published and well received. ‘From the outside,’ he said ‘you look like you’re having a great lockdown.’ ‘I’m not sure there is such a thing,’ I replied. This exchange made me think about the role of perception at the Bar. Our profession prides itself on excellence. This is no bad thing but the collective pursuit of perfection, or at least the perception thereof, is damaging. It’s as if any hint of struggle or difficulty is the same as failing. It is not. There are parts of life for which I am grateful this year. But I’ve also lost a grandfather and helped a member of my immediate family recover from a life-threatening accident. Life gets in the way and I see merit in being able to say so. As noted by advocates for mental health, being self-employed can be lonely, particularly in a profession where your colleagues are also your competitors and there is such an emphasis on winning and losing. The Bar can sometimes feel like a social media platform. We are all invested in a system that encourages us to show the other participants all the great things we are doing and the achievements we are collecting. It almost goes without saying but this is never going to be the full picture.
Doing a solitary job in a busy world is one thing, but doing a solitary job in a solitary world is quite another. For me, one of the main ways in which the sense of isolation is mitigated is through interaction with colleagues at the Bar, whether at court or in chambers.
During lockdown I missed chambers. It is a place I associate with work but also somewhere I feel able to ask questions informally, to share challenges and deal with professional struggles. A place where idle conversation can prove a catalyst for novel inspiration. It is a community, the absence of which I felt acutely. And the benefits of separating work from home apply to court work too. The courtroom is a physical space that is designated to facilitate disputes, your dining table is not. Of course, a lot of work always ends up being done at home but there is, to my mind, an impact difficult to measure in not being able to utilise these spaces for their proper purpose and having to substitute our homes in their stead. In short, there is a damaging impact from replacing the idea of ‘working from home’ with a more intrusive ‘living at work’.
And this enforced revision in approach is likely disproportionately to impact certain people. For example, I am not a parent but having spoken to colleagues with children about the challenges they face during the pandemic, I understand they are significant. It seems important to me that we speak to one another about how we are coping. Really coping. That, in the finest traditions of the Bar, we hasten a move toward an environment in which we can lean on each other at the very time when we are so far away from one another.
The tone of organisational culture is set from the top. 84% of silks are men. Although mental health problems affect women and men equally, the latter are less likely to discuss or seek help for them. Having a Bar that reflects the society it serves might help it collectively to think differently too. Making it more acceptable to take issues which have historically been hidden in the corners of ourselves and shine a light on them without fear of appearing to have failed. To demonstrate that strength has many faces.
According to ‘Wellbeing at the Bar’, an organisation focused on improving mental health among barristers, almost 70% of us consider talking about stress as weakness. The only point to this article is to move myself out of that 70%. I hope you will join me.