Piece of our minds

14th May 2020

In support of Mental Health Awareness Week, we look back at our research on the industry’s attitudes towards mental health.

mental health


In 2019 we teamed up with IP Inclusive and CIPA to survey the mental wellbeing of the patent and trade mark professions.

Interestingly, the results of the IP survey indicate that, on the whole, CITMA/CIPA professionals suffer less with mental health issues than the wider legal profession. But what is the picture for others?

This latest survey was composed with the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) 2019 survey in mind, so that responses could be compared, although the addition of CITMA members means there will be some variation. It addressed the levels of stress incurred by the 1016 respondents, how they coped, and whether support was available. The 2019 results showed a decrease in levels of stress and other mental health problems compared to the previous years.

However, some of the results were alarming. People in our profession have contemplated suicide. Paralegals and students appear more stressed than other CIPA and CITMA members. The current support available appears to be insufficient and a significant number of respondents appear afraid to speak out. CITMA is concerned by the results and is taking positive steps to support its profession.

Findings in focus

The research shows that more than two-thirds of the respondents have been stressed, anxious and/or depressed in the past year, which has adversely affected their work.

The table below shows that the paralegal cohort had the highest number of sufferers of high anxiety (61.2%), followed by other respondents, and then students.

The greatest worry is the number of respondents who have contemplated suicide in the past 12 months, almost 6% across the student and “other” groups. When questioned, a number stated that their problems were not related to work or were merely compounded by work.

Regardless of the cause, this tells us that we need to be taking the issue seriously at all levels. Looking into the survey’s findings can help us uncover specific areas of focus.

One-fifth of our student and paralegal respondents, and approximately a quarter of qualified counterparts, were currently feeling uncomfortable or worse at work.

Looking at a snapshot of the past month only, stress levels were high for up to a quarter of respondents, increasing with seniority of position.

As a result, people struggled to cope at work. The stress had also affected, or at least was perceived to have affected, other aspects of people’s lives, causing problems with sleep, appetite, fatigue and other physical effects, and (in particular for qualified attorneys) with relationships outside of work.

Drivers of distress

Causes of mental health conditions include clients, management, exams, and work-life balance. Of the paralegal group, 40 per cent claim to struggle with “poor management”, while more than half of the surveyed students are experiencing exam stress.

Nearly a third of qualified attorneys suffered from stress caused by conflict with home life and caring responsibilities. Worryingly, one in 10 paralegals are experiencing bullying or harassment in the workplace.

The report suggested that IP professionals are extremely self-critical; fears around not being good enough and not “fitting in” were cited as major contributors to mental health problems.

In addition, more than a tenth of the main survey respondents had experienced anxiety or isolation about, and/or felt the need to hide, aspects of themselves, these figures increasing for students and more so for paralegals.

Dialogue and support

More than half of respondents had not made their employer aware of their issues, with students being the least likely to communicate. The report suggests that this could be because of their junior status and concerns about career prospects.

Despite being disproportionately affected, paralegals speak out about their issues more than other groups and are more likely to take time off.

Although several commented that they had supportive managers/HR/ workplaces, almost 16 per cent of non-students were unaware of workplace support measures.

On the upside, 15–20 per cent now have access to a trained mental health first-aider. CITMA has recognised the benefit of these and is organising training so that more can be available.

The availability of flexible working arrangements seems to be reasonably good for patent and trade mark professionals, in particular for qualified attorneys.

Table

The impact on workplace productivity may be masked as more than 80 per cent of respondents have not taken time off. Productivity, however, may be impacted as sufferers of stress, anxiety and/or depression have more potential to make mistakes.

Respondents did not wish to take time off due to high workload, letting people down and feeling that they should cope. More than a quarter of students and paralegals had concerns regarding career prospects.

As an industry, there appears to be an opportunity to encourage more dialogue, increase awareness of available support and consider time off to help with mental health issues.

Job satisfaction

It’s not all bleak: both job satisfaction levels and current mood were reported more positively this year. All three groups of respondents cited good-to-high levels of job satisfaction when things are going well and the percentage of students wishing to leave the profession has halved since 2018.

However, more than a fifth of all IP respondents were considering job or career changes. That figure is more than a third for the wider legal profession. This is a concern, for the legal profession as a whole.

The report also indicates that more than 10 per cent of the main survey respondents had moved to a different job (for example, in a smaller firm, a non-London location or an in-house department) or gone freelance, or had at least planned an “exit strategy”, in order to reduce stress levels.

Coping

Unfortunately, stress was having a negative impact on people, resulting in mistakes (or near-mistakes), reduced confidence, and physical problems such as fatigue and loss of sleep. However, the report indicated a good level of awareness of accepted stress-countering strategies.

People partake in activities such as physical exercise, connecting with other people and limiting working hours to combat stress. Most members use family and friends and also sympathetic colleagues for support. Sadly, the use of resources such as the LawCare helpline is low.

Professional opinion

I obtained the opinion of a retired consultant psychiatrist on the survey. She considered it well constructed and recommended an occupational psychologist was involved in any further surveys. She advised looking into methods other professions adopted to reduce stress and prevent people leaving the profession.

Surprisingly, she did not consider the suicidal thought figures to be high. However, she pointed out that suicide is a highly complex subject. With three different groups involved, she warned that it is difficult to make firm conclusions, however support is key to those struggling.

Responding to the survey, Immediate Past-President Tania Clark stated:

“The results of this survey confirm that mental health and wellbeing is an important issue for the IP legal profession. The findings will be a wake-up call for many in the profession and their firms and shows that together we need to do more. We are committed to working with IP Inclusive, LawCare, firms and our members to maintain an open dialogue and help tackle the stigma around mental health.”

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare commented:

“We were interested to read the survey results, which reflect the issues legal professionals contact our support service about: stress, anxiety and depression. These problems are often caused or exacerbated by a difficult working environment. Lack of support or supervision, an overly critical manager, an unreasonably heavy workload, long hours and sleep deprivation are all very common. Firms need to do their best to create a healthy and happy place to work, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because there is a strong proven business case for it.”

What next?

It is clear that our sector needs to consider mental health as a real issue. The current view is that it should be treated as any other medical condition and our profession should be prepared to take active measures to support our colleagues.

The report provides a number of useful recommendations and advises that IP Inclusive, CIPA, CITMA and individual employers within the patent and trade mark professions should continue to work together to:

  • Encourage open dialogue about mental health and reduce the associated stigma.
  • Improve workplace cultures to be more inclusive and supportive of those with mental health problems.
  • Adapt working practices and workload management to reduce stress levels.
  • Improve signposting to relevant resources, both within and outside the sector.

These suggestions appear plausible and should be factored into a workplace, in particular small firms/ businesses and for those who work in-house. Specific support for paralegals and students should be considered. I have spoken to CITMA members, including students and paralegals, who are not surprised by the findings.

There is a real appetite for industry-wide positive action. I hope this bears fruit soon. We have the potential to create environments in which individuals feel that they can bring their whole selves to work, manage workloads and work-life balance and feel supported by their employers, whatever their level.

With thanks to Andrea Brewster, Lead Executive Officer of IP Inclusive, who formulated and reported the survey. The full report can be viewed here.

Resources and support

Should you require support, please do not hesitate to call on the following resources:

LawCare: CITMA contributes financially to its running. It promotes and supports good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community. Call the free Support Helpline on 0800 279 6888 Mon–Fri, 9am–5.30pm, or webchat, Mon 9am–1pm, Wed 1–5.30pm, Fri 9am–1pm, or visit lawcare.org.uk

Samaritans: For assistance outside of working hours, call the helpline at any time on 116 123

IP Inclusive: See its dedicated page at ipinclusive.org.uk/mental-health-and-wellbeing/

Jonathan’s Voice: This charity, to which the report is dedicated, was set up in memory of the Patent Attorney Jonathan McCartney, who in 2017 tragically took his own life. Visit jonathansvoice.org.uk/

Or visit our LawCare and why mental health matters pages.

 

Notes on methodology 

The survey was voluntary and anonymous and contained separate, tailored versions for students and paralegals alongside the main survey of other CIPA and CITMA members. Of the 1,016 respondents, 709 were CIPA members and 232 were CITMA members. Of those, 253 were students, which represented 21.3 per cent of the total CITMA/ CIPA student members, and 153 were paralegals (22.6 per cent of all CITMA/CIPA paralegals).

2019 responses had increased from the previous year. This may be because the survey was opened up to CITMA members. Respondents came from a range of professional roles, career levels and working environments. Regretfully, in-house professionals were much less well represented than private practice, the majority working in large private practice firms, in a city, not necessarily London.

When assessing the results, we need to note that respondents with mental health issues, are more likely to complete the survey than those without. However, we may not have the full picture – those struggling with stress may not have had the time/inclination to fill out the survey. Therefore, the issue of stress in the IP profession could be more alarming then the results indicate.