Mental health in intellectual property – breaking down barriers

The often-hidden blight of mental illness is something that can affect anyone, especially those in a highly pressurised working environment such as the IP industry. We look at how best to recognise and address these issues for the benefit of the entire sector.

Mental illness is frequently referred to as the ‘last taboo’. This is because, despite an undeniable increase in awareness surrounding mental health disorders, many people still struggle to be open about their internal battles.

It is widely recognised that mental illness affects millions of people globally, with one in four suffering every year. According to figures from the Global Burden of Disease study, around 268 million people worldwide were diagnosed with depression in 2016, while 275 million were living with anxiety disorders.

One factor which is frequently associated with the development of mental health issues is work-related stress, something with which professionals in the IP industry are familiar.

Long hours, complex cases, rising expectations and vast workloads can all result in elevated stress levels which contribute to anxiety and, if ignored, can lead to depression.

A 2017 Health and Safety Executive study showed that the legal profession is the third most stressed in the United Kingdom, behind only welfare professionals and nurses and midwives. Figures show that 27% of the calls made to charity LawCare, which supports mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession, are stress related.

Helping to support the wellbeing of IP and legal professionals, IP Inclusive was created to bring together organisations from across the industry to promote greater diversity and inclusivity in the profession.

The founding members of the taskforce include the Chartered Institute of Trademark Attorneys and the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) – the taskforce is headed by the author of this article.

Intellectual property can be a highly pressured working environment. IP attorneys and those in the legal profession are more at risk of stress as they often have Type A personalities, which includes being highly motivated, a perfectionist, impatient, controlling and competitive. Stress levels are then exacerbated by long hours, high workloads, target-focused appraisals, the perceived need for self-sufficiency and a fear of making a mistake. 

By recognising and addressing mental health problems in the workplace, removing the stigma associated with them and building each other’s resilience to cope with stress, we can create more inclusive workplaces where everyone can flourish.

With this in mind, what can patent and trademark attorneys in the IP profession do if they are concerned about their own or others’ mental health?

Recognising the signs

Often those under pressure may be unaware that they are reacting or behaving out of character. As stress builds within a role, a person may begin to demonstrate physical or emotional symptoms as they attempt to internalise their issues and cope without support. However, for those around them, this could be the first warning sign of a mental health disorder.

Common physical and emotional indicators which point to growing mental health issues include fatigue, over-tiredness, headaches and mood swings, as well as becoming hyperemotional and obsessive.

Attorneys who begin to recognise these signs in themselves should seek help immediately in a bid to minimise the effect on their mental state.

Many people may experience tiredness or mood swings and become emotional at work on a regular basis. While this is not always an indicator of developing mental health issues, when these types of symptom are demonstrated on a regular and sustained basis, this could be an unconscious cry for help and a sign that something is wrong.

For attorneys who feel this way it is important to speak up, whether this is to a colleague, friend, family member, manager or counsellor. Sharing problems will enable attorneys to begin to address any concerns and find a solution. LawCare also has a completely independent, free and confidential helpline which is manned by trained counsellors, many of whom are legal professionals.

Equally, encouraging wider discussion around mental health in the IP sector will help to break down the taboos surrounding mental illness, promote tolerance and understanding, and support people whatever their strengths and weaknesses.

Creating a supportive and inclusive working environment is a priority for IP Inclusive but it is not something which can be achieved without the participation and support of everyone involved, in particular those in management and decision-making roles.

Reducing stress

Once it has been identified that you may be behaving out of character or feeling a physical strain resulting from work, it is time to act.

Self-evaluation is not always easy when in the midst of a stressful situation, and often anxiety or depression is only identified when an individual has reached their emotional limit. However, once it is recognised, there are simple steps and changes that can be made to daily routines which will help to tackle daily mental health worries.

Simply leaving your desk at lunch and enjoying the outdoors can be hugely beneficial, as is going to bed an hour earlier to ensure that you feel better rested ahead of the next day’s work.

Identifying stress triggers and preparing for these is also crucial to taking control of how to manage your own mental health. If the trigger is a situation that is unavoidable in a professional capacity, discuss how to handle this with a manager.

Eating well is also universally recognised as having not only physical health benefits, but also boosting mental stability, so it is also advisable to adjust your diet to incorporate healthier choices during the working day.

Finally, invest in your relationships, whether this is with family and friends or work colleagues; everyone is there to support you, so ensure you make time to relax and unwind with others.

Asking for help

Recognising that you are unable to mentally cope with daily challenges which may be overwhelming is vital. Many attorneys may be tempted to push through these feelings, which could exacerbate the issue.

As such, it is crucial that attorneys speak to a manager at the earliest opportunity before being consumed by stress or anxiety. Burying concerns could result in physical symptoms, such as sleeplessness, fatigue or upset.

In a bid to encourage greater discussion around mental health and create a supportive environment, employers could create a safe space within the office to enable staff to approach them in a confidential setting, according to Dr Jayne Nation at Wynne-Jones IP.

The leading IP firm, which has bases in Cardiff, Cheltenham, Telford and London, actively promotes inclusivity and discussion around mental health across its offices.

“At Wynne-Jones IP we are proud to be a signee of the IP Inclusive charter and to live up to the standards promoted through the initiative”, Dr Nation enthuses.

“Our attorneys and their wellbeing are our number one priority and as such we are always on hand to support them in finding a healthy working balance.

“We operate an open-door policy and actively encourage them to approach a team member or manager if they are feeling overwhelmed or struggling with mental health issues.

“Encouraging inclusivity is absolutely crucial when it comes to promoting greater wellbeing across the intellectual property industry and is something we as a firm are passionate about.”

This inclusive and supportive ethos is worthy of recognition in an environment where many are reluctant to talk about mental health problems, or even admit that they are suffering from stress or anxiety. 

There could be any number of reasons for this, including not wanting to lose face or damage promotion prospects; perhaps feeling undeserving of being unwell when there are others worse off. 

However, it is important that the industry finds a way of opening up those conversations, because if people cannot talk about mental health they will battle on alone, which is not good for businesses, clients or for the profession as a whole.

Comment

When it comes to mental health it is essential that people continue to speak out, whether to ask for help or continue to raise awareness across the IP profession.

The IP industry is undoubtedly becoming more inclusive and supportive in relation to mental health, with more people discussing mental health disorders and stress-related issues in a more transparent manner.

To encourage discussion, IP Inclusive has worked with the CIPA and LawCare to create a series of webinars offering support for coping with work-related stress, which educates and supports IP professionals.

This year and last, IP Inclusive ran events to mark Mental Health Awareness Week which was co-organised with supporting organisations such as Wynne-Jones IP. These events focused on tackling workplace stress and addressing the stigma surrounding mental health.

While this is an undeniable step forward, we must continue working to raise awareness of mental health in the IP profession to provide attorneys with the confidence and support they need to recognise the signs, ask for help and make a significant change.

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