IP workloads have a worrying effect on mental health

A new UK mental health survey reveals that most IP practitioners are experiencing stress and other mental health problems as a result of heavy workloads

The results of IP Inclusive’s 2022 Mental Health Awareness Week survey made for concerning reading at the end of last year. Most UK IP attorneys, paralegals and business support staff are experiencing increased stress (55%) and anxiety (51%) as a result of their work. Meanwhile, roughly a quarter (24.5%) had been affected by depression over the past 12 months. In fact, only one in four IP practitioners (26.7%) claimed not to have experienced stress or mental health problems in 2022.

As in previous years, the main causes were workload related. The biggest pressures for IP attorneys come from:

  • deadlines (60.1% of main survey respondents identified this as a cause of stress and anxiety);
  • client demands and expectations (45.2%);
  • billing targets (44.1%); and
  • insufficient support (35.7%).

Weighing heaviest on paralegals and business support staff are:

  • deadlines (37.5% of paralegal and business support staff respondents identified this as a cause of stress and anxiety);
  • insufficient control over workloads (33.6%);
  • insufficient support (29.6%); and
  • long hours (27%).

The conflict between work and home life and/or personal responsibilities (eg, caring) has also put a strain on both groups (32.7% and 26.3%, respectively).

This has been magnified by the pandemic. Almost half of all IP attorneys (47.9%) and over 40% of paralegals and business support staff are more concerned about their work-life balance now than they were pre-covid. Meanwhile, roughly one-quarter (27.9% of IP attorneys and 23.1% of paralegal and business support staff) are more concerned about personal responsibilities such as caring for dependants since the pandemic.

The results suggest that a post-covid (often hybrid) working environment has amplified many pre-existing pressures on IP professionals. In fact, over 35% of practitioners are more concerned about working hours now than before the pandemic – likely due to a combination of increased workloads and difficulties in switching off when working from home.

“The problem of heavy, often unsupported, workloads has merely shifted from the workplace into the home space and ultimately, that could be storing up even more problems for us,” Andrea Brewster, lead executive officer at IP Inclusive, told WTR in October. “People generally seem to have more flexibility now as to place – and even times – of work, which has yielded some positives. But a large proportion, as a result, are now more concerned about their work-life balance and control over their working hours.”

All of this is having a significant impact on business output. Stress and other mental health issues are regularly leading to:

  • mistakes (or near mistakes);
  • reduced productivity;
  • reduced confidence;
  • difficulty concentrating; and
  • physical problems such as fatigue and loss of sleep.

Around three-quarters of IP attorneys reported reduced productivity (73.2%) and difficulty concentrating (75.6%) as a result of work-related stress. Meanwhile, over a quarter of all respondents to the survey (25.2%) admitted to making work-related mistakes that would not have happened otherwise.

Worse still, over 40% of IP attorneys, paralegals and business support staff have considered leaving their current jobs or the profession entirely.

“Our sector cannot afford for that to continue,” Brewster urged. “We need to keep our people safe; they are our most valuable asset. We need them to work efficiently and without mistakes – which someone with mental health problems cannot do. And we want them to stay, because recruitment is a difficult and expensive process in this sector.”

Without addressing unrealistic workloads, the industry remains at significant risk of losing talent. Employers need to prioritise long-term productivity over short-term profits, Brewster explained.

Fewer than 20% of respondents to the IP Inclusive survey had access to back-to-work support after an absence (eg, a phased return or regular follow-ups), support networks or groups, or wellbeing training. Meanwhile, most IP attorneys (57.4%) and paralegals and business support staff (51.8%) cited having too much work to do as the biggest barrier to taking time off. Over 41% of IP attorneys cited that they did not want to let clients down.

While these figures are marginally better than in IP Inclusive’s previous surveys, they suggest that a stigma around mental health issues is still present in the IP workplace. Most respondents (between 51% and 57.3%) feel that they can discuss these issues with a sympathetic line manager, but this is still far less than ideal. Further, this number drops when seeking a sympathetic HR personnel (between 28.7% and 35.7%).

Thankfully, fewer than 10% of respondents have access to no support at all, which is an improvement since 2019. “While it’s encouraging that there are more support measures being introduced, to help the people who are struggling, there’s still plenty to be done about the things that are causing people to struggle in the first place,” said Brewster. “Having more mental health first aiders is good. But better still will be to ensure they’re rarely called on.”

This requires change on “a more fundamental level”, she insisted. Organisations need to find a way to reduce the workload-related pressures on IP professionals. Otherwise, many will continue to carry the weight of expectations without seeking support, creating greater issues further down the road – both for the individual and for the business.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the WTR platform in October 2022

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