Page published on 21st October 2022
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On 14 October 2022 we published the results of our 2022 survey of mental wellbeing in the patent and trade mark professions. A joint project with the charity Jonathan’s Voice, the survey built on those we conducted in 2018 and 2019 and has yielded valuable information about mental health problems in the sector, their causes, their impact and the support available to help people cope. It has also provided insights into the effects of Covid-19.
Our Lead Executive Officer Andrea Brewster OBE offers a personal insight into the survey results, and how she believes the sector needs to respond. You can read a summary of the results, and access our full report, via this post.
If there’s one thing our 2022 survey has taught us, it’s that the mental health challenges we face in the IP professions are not going away any time soon. Yes, people now seem a bit better able to talk about their mental wellbeing. Yes, there appear to be more workplace support measures (for example trained mental health first aiders) in place than in 2019. Yes, our staff generally have more flexible working arrangements and that has undoubtedly reaped some benefits.
And yet. We still have significant numbers of people suffering from stress and anxiety. A good proportion of them still aren’t able to disclose their problems to their employers and even fewer feel they can take time off to address them. And – here’s the thing – the reasons for this are exactly the same as in 2018 and 2019.
Workloads. What is eroding our mental wellbeing in the IP sector is too much work, too many deadlines and targets, no back-up, no let-up. Things which, frankly, have been the same in all three of our surveys so far and common to all patent and trade mark professionals, including students, paralegals and their business support colleagues. For students, unsurprisingly, these problems are exacerbated by a merciless combination of day-to-day workload and exam preparation.
We seem to expect our workers to have limitless capacity and endless resilience. You can’t expect that of a machine, let alone a diligent professional.
Covid appears to have helped in some ways, but not in others. This year’s respondents have more flexibility as to place – and even times – of work than in 2019, which has reduced some concerns. But a large proportion, as a result, are now more concerned about their work-life balance. The problem of heavy, often unsupported, workloads has merely shifted from the workplace to the personal space.
How to fix this?
I’m often asked what employers can do by way of quick, simple solutions. The answer is that there are no quick wins here. There is nothing you can “just get done tomorrow”. Start tomorrow, by all means, but on something that will go on much longer.
If your office has a dangerously slippy stairwell, you don’t solve the problem by training first aiders to apply plasters to the resulting wounds. You mend the stairwell. So it is with mental health: having trained first aiders is good for treating the symptoms, but they can’t tackle the causes of stress, anxiety and depression. That requires fundamental changes to working practices, as we discussed in our June 2022 webinar, “The sticking plaster and the stairwell”, on just this topic.
I appreciate it’s hard for employers and managers. Recruitment is tough. There are financial and competitive pressures. There is uncertainty on many fronts. Pretty much all of us have experienced anxiety. But it’s becoming clear that the “sticking plaster” measures are not in themselves sufficient. Mental wellbeing cannot be safeguarded by asking already-stressed middle managers to spend more time talking to their team members. It can’t be palmed off on the HR team. Nor can it be trained away. Budget provision for team-building activities and mindfulness sessions and bowls of fruit will barely scratch the surface: overworked professionals have no time for mindfulness and will simply eat the fruit at their desks with their eyes glued to the inbox.
This has to be addressed at the very top of our organisations. All good businesses have their strategists, their visionaries: people who are thinking about the longer-term direction of travel. It is these people who need to address mental wellbeing. And why? – Because this is about organisational culture at its most fundamental, defining level, about the sustainability of the business, its resilience, and ultimately its survival.
What our surveys have been warning us is this: our decision makers should look long and hard at the demands they place on the people who generate their profits. There’s an urgent need to manage those demands more effectively and more humanely. Contingency plans – to enable people to take a step back if they’re struggling – need to be in place. And there has to be a corporate culture, modelled from the very top, that says it’s OK to set boundaries, to have limits, to admit if you’re too stressed and ask others to step in and help while you recover.
Taking the long view
At the risk of sounding like a member of the “Anti-Growth Campaign” (whatever that is), I suggest this will mean prioritising short-term profits below longer-term productivity and sustainability. Our people are our most valuable asset: lockdown made that clear. So we need to keep them safe. 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. All three of our surveys have showed a worrying proportion of respondents wanting to leave their current job, or even the entire profession, because of mental health issues. Our sector can’t afford for that to continue.
It’s a change in focus for the longer term good. That involves asking ourselves some potentially unpalatable questions:
- Do we want more clients now? Or slightly fewer clients for whom we can do a better – and safer – job? Longer term that will bring its own business benefits.
- Do we want more productive staff now, or staff who produce more, and better quality, over a more sustained period, and – importantly – stay with us?
I know that’s not an easy choice. There’s cash flow to think about, and profits and liabilities and market share. It’s just that, sooner or later, it may not be a choice at all. Make it now, while you can. Make yours the business that performs more effectively, that weathers the storms, and where the really good people want to put down their roots.
Some practical suggestions
So how might these new strategies play out in practice? Well, here are some of the things I suggest businesses should do:
- Create a culture where people can – and do – speak out if they’re struggling. Let them know they don’t need to reach crisis point before they do.
- Create a framework in which everyone has someone they can turn to for help – someone they trust.
- Ensure people are heard when they do speak out, and their problems addressed with practical, pressure-relieving changes. No one should be dismissed as “lightweight” or “difficult” for admitting they’re overwhelmed.
- Manage workloads properly within departments or teams:
- Someone senior needs to know who’s doing what.
- They need to understand how much and what type of work each team member can reasonably take – this will be different for everyone, and change with time.
- There has to be regular communication within teams, not as a box-ticking exercise but with the aim of watching one another’s backs for the greater good.
- Team leaders must both set, and accept, realistic targets. Don’t over-stretch people. Know when to say “no” – or at least “not right now” or “not in that way”.
- Most importantly, establish contingency plans, so that when someone needs to step back, someone else can step in to cover. Make sure at least two people are roughly familiar with each case, or at least with each client. In smaller firms, where that’s less feasible, find someone you could turn to in another organisation, who you’d trust to do the right thing by your clients if you needed to take time off.
- Do these things at all levels and for all roles. If paralegals and support staff are stressed, that’s also bad for team productivity and morale.
- Ensure that senior staff are role modelling the behaviours you want: managing their own workloads realistically and collaboratively and acknowledging when they need help.
- For trainees, consider reducing their regular workload and scheduling more time for exam-focused activities, both within the working week and through private study days. You may find they become competent and productive more quickly with the pressure relieved.
Page published on 21st October 2022
Page last modified on