Are you a leading light?

23rd Feb 2022

When it comes to caring for mental health in IP firms, success starts at the top. We asked some senior leaders how they’re stepping up.

Many CITMA Review readers will have heard of Jonathan McCartney. But for those for whom the name is new, he was an avid football fan, a kind friend and a loving son.

He was also a successful patent attorney, pursuing a career that he loved. Tragically and unexpectedly, in 2017 at the age of just 35, Jonathan took his own life. His family set up the charity Jonathan’s Voice in his memory.

As we’ve reported in the pages of the Review, Jonathan’s struggle with his mental health is sadly not rare among legal professionals.

Mental health charity LawCare found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed had experienced mental ill-health during 2020.

In addition, of those who had, almost half did not feel comfortable talking about their struggles at work.

While 2020 may have been a particularly stressful year, a 2019 survey by IP Inclusive found that more than half of respondents had been adversely affected by stress in the preceding 12 months, with at least 20% suffering from depression and 40% from anxiety.

“Take a look at the number of people you know who have had some difficulty over the last two years. Now multiply that by around four. Then you might be getting close to the true number of people having difficulties at any one time,” says Catherine Wiseman, Partner and Head of Trade Marks at Barker Brettell.

Legally, all employers have a duty of care to their employees to support not only their physical health in the workplace, but also their mental wellbeing. Yet it’s clear to many that such support starts at the top.

“Having senior leaders involved in and promoting mental health campaigns signals support, encouragement and understanding of the importance of mental health and in wanting to help those who might be experiencing mental ill-health,” says Mary Bagnall, Partner and Head of Intellectual Property at Charles Russell Speechlys.

Recognising the role that senior leaders play in creating a workplace that supports openness and wellbeing, Jonathan’s Voice published “Advancing the mental health and wellbeing agenda: A guide for senior leaders in the intellectual property profession” last year. In return, the Review recently caught up with a number of CITMA members in senior positions, including Wiseman and Bagnall, to get a sense for how they and their firms are stepping up to support mental health.

Why are IP professionals struggling?

Jonathan’s Voice and IP Inclusive cite the nature of IP professionals’ work as the most significant cause of mental health difficulties among them: a high workload coupled with tight deadlines and a need for razor-sharp accuracy can create a very stressful environment.

This is especially true for perfectionists and particularly conscientious individuals, who tend to put more pressure on themselves to perform.

On top of this, the pandemic has added extra pressures to an already stressful line of work, with people having to cope with lockdown, illness, bereavement, loneliness, isolation and fear of COVID-19.

It’s a sea of change, all on top of a heavy workload – triggering more situational and reactional difficulties, as opposed to clinical, ongoing and long-term mental issues – explains Bagnall.

It’s not just stress that can have an adverse effect on mental health in the workplace. Some individuals may be affected by issues related to ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Certain groups, such as those from minority ethnic groups and the LGBTQ+ communities, or people with disabilities, are more vulnerable to experiencing mental health difficulties at work.

This is why equality, diversity and inclusion work is also intricately connected to staff wellbeing.

The firm Mewburn Ellis has prioritised inclusion and diversity using results from a staff survey and feedback sessions as the foundation of a three-year plan to “help our people to feel they belong and can bring their true self to work”, explains Partner and Head of Trade Marks Kate O’Rourke.

Importantly, that plan has been developed together with people from all parts of the company and shared firmwide so that leaders in the firm are held accountable for keeping to the timetable, she adds.

Open the conversation

The foundation of better mental health in any organisation is a culture that supports staff wellbeing and mental health. Iin this respect, “there’s always more that firms can do,” says David Stone, Global Head of IP at Allen & Overy.

His firm, he says, is taking a partner-led approach that includes fostering a culture in which mental health can be openly discussed.

“We’re really centred on people. We try not to focus on poor mental health linked to lack of work/life balance,

but rather to take a holistic approach to all the reasons, inside and outside of work, why someone might need support with their mental health.”

The firm has more than 40 mental health advocates, made up of partners and other senior professionals, from across the firm’s global offices.

Mental health is talked about more than it was 10 years ago, but some still consider the topic taboo. “Work must continue on normalising conversations about mental health difficulties so that we can reduce and remove stigma,” says Wiseman. “It’s OK to talk about it and everyone needs to feel that.”

Wiseman’s firm, Barker Brettell, also has a set of mental health advocates and ensures everyone knows who these people are through the firm’s telephone directories.

Such mental health champions and first aiders help to encourage conversation and dialogue within teams and offer support where individuals may not feel as comfortable speaking to senior colleagues.

Personal accounts and stories invite empathy, raise awareness and help individuals who are suffering to feel less alone. Communicating these also shows that the firm is open to talking about the issue.

To this end, Wiseman is open with her team about her own experiences, for example if she is having a tough day: “I want them to be able to be honest with me about how their day, week or life is going. It’s important to build strong relationships with team members, as you then care about each other and work together to help each other through rough times.”

Charles Russell Speechlys ran a video campaign through which employees, including two senior executives and a leading partner, spoke about their issues.

“It was incredibly brave and powerful,” says Mary Bagnall. “It said, essentially, that mental health difficulties can affect anyone, at any level, and should – in fact must – not be perceived as career-limiting.”

David Stone believes that whether or not you have experienced mental health challenges, it’s important to be an active ally to those who have: “I’ve found it helps to listen, educate myself, and try to understand things from their perspective.”

Firms can also invite external speakers to share their stories. “Different speakers will attract different attendees, so it is important to provide different types of events to reach the widest audience possible,” advises Bagnall.

In May 2021, more than 200 employees in her firm attended a virtual talk by former international Rugby Union referee Nigel Owens about his mental health struggles.

It’s important for senior leaders to actively engage in firms’ mental health awareness initiatives, says Kate O’Rourke. “I try and attend as many of the events as possible – it’s not enough to just encourage other people to go.

Leadership teams, including all partners and senior managers, must demonstrate that they understand the issues and are willing to not just speak up, but also take action to make change.”

Bagnall agrees: “The more campaigns that are run in-house, the more normalised these conversations are, the more senior leaders engage in campaigns or share personal insights – the more likely individuals will feel comfortable to have a conversation.”

Manage the pressure

Firms should also examine current company practices and tackle unhelpful aspects of company culture such as presenteeism, long hours and working while taking paid time off.

These are often seen as “just part of the job”, but they can raise the risk of stress, anxiety and burnout.

You might worry that such a change in company culture could lead to a decline in standards or an increase in disappointed clients.

However, a challenge for any leader is balancing your responsibility across successfully achieving a task, leading your team, and meeting the needs of the individuals within it.

There is almost never a perfect balance, but without paying attention to all three of these considerations, a team cannot be successful.

Balancing the needs of clients and their tasks with the needs of your team is never going to be simple – but it is important. “Clients are paying for talented minds, and they are not necessarily going to get the best client service if the lawyers are burnt out, anxious or depressed,” says Bagnall.

She has always adopted a team culture whereby her team works together to assist anyone who feels they cannot cope with their workload.

“We have weekly team meetings where workloads and deadlines are discussed, and all the necessary assistance is given to anyone who feels overburdened.

Our team-based approach assists in balancing the needs of clients as we identify pressure points and work together to meet the clients’ needs collectively without any one person having to be overwhelmed.”

In this regard, David Stone underscores the importance of managing client expectations. “Clients of course expect the work they are paying for to be right and on time.

This occasionally requires us to pull out all the stops – for a deal or a court deadline,” he explains. “At other times, a conversation can work well to set some expectations. I think clients understand that looking after our people is better for all in the longer term.”

But leaders must walk the talk: “It is clear that this culture requires buy-in from the top,” says Bagnall. For instance, if you are telling staff that they shouldn’t be working at certain times, lead by example.

Spot the signs

It is important to be able to recognise the signs that someone, including yourself and other senior leaders, is struggling and know when and how to refer it on.

“It is easy to think that this is just about looking after the staff and that the partners are somehow above this,” admits Bagnall.

The truth is, anyone can be affected, from the most junior to the most senior employee.

Recognising that someone is struggling often involves being able to spot when someone’s behaviour has changed, so the signs will, by definition, depend on the individual.

Some people may become more reserved and others may take more time off. O’Rourke explains that her firm has noticed more instances of issues such as insomnia and migraines during the pandemic.

Such awareness has been made harder by the switch to remote and hybrid working, where regular face-to-face time with your team is no longer guaranteed. “Not being able to see our teams every day has made it harder to spot the signs,” says Wiseman.

“This has meant that we have needed to keep in contact with our people and make more space to create and encourage opportunities for people to open up about how they are feeling.” In response, she scheduled weekly “cuppa tea” meetings with her team individually during lockdown.

The nature of the problems that someone may be struggling with and whether they are related to work will also affect how leaders should react. Will time off help? Can reasonable adjustments be made? It is likely that they will need to refer the person to someone with specialist expertise, such as a GP.

For leaders, it is important to educate yourself and all members of the firm about the support that is available.

“Employee Assistance Programmes are a good support, but the biggest hurdle is getting people to use them,” explains Bagnall. “Often, people are not aware of the support that is there, even though it will have been regularly advertised.”

It seems clear that those firms taking a preventative approach by creating an open and collaborative culture and proactively ensuring that measures are in place to support anyone struggling will better be able to support their workforce in the moments when they need it.

“Being a lawyer or attorney in a City firm environment will necessarily have its pressures, but it is possible to thrive on the challenges while still ensuring good mental health,” says Bagnall. 

Tips for the top: Leading a wellbeing workplace

  • Have a staff mental health policy and plan. The UK Government’s “Thriving at Work” review (an independent review of mental health and employers by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer) can be a useful tool when structuring your plan.
  • Challenge the stigma. Ensure the firm talks about mental health, whether through speaker events or actively signposting resources, and as a leader be open about your experiences.
  • Be honest and authentic. Being genuine, compassionate and honest in the way you approach this topic is key to creating trust and, in turn, a psychologically safe space for employees to express their difficulties without fearing negative consequences. Jonathan’s Voice recommends first examining your own feelings surrounding mental health difficulties. Only then can you approach the issue with authenticity.
  • Challenge unhelpful company culture. This includes ending presenteeism and discouraging long hours. And make sure to encourage staff to have a healthier work/life balance.
  • Make resources available. Give employees access to educational resources and apps, employee assistance programmes, counselling and therapy through private medical schemes. Make sure people are aware these supports exist and how to use and access them. Ensure your health scheme allows employees access to a range of therapeutic options.
  • Be a good listener. Listening to what your staff have to say is important too. Consider attending training courses on active listening.
  • Assess mental health risk. In some cases, it is possible to manage the workflow hazards caused by mental health not only by managing stress and workload levels in the first instance, but also by creating contingency plans for when someone is off sick or needs to take some pressure off. For instance, it’s often a good idea to have two attorneys assigned to significant clients or cases.
  • Don’t forget that mental health in the workplace is not just about stress. Consider, for example, how diversity and inclusion or bullying and harassment is addressed. Such issues also affect how safe people feel in the workplace.
  • Ensure the message comes from the top. If the senior leadership team doesn’t walk the talk, meaningful change is less likely to happen. Senior staff should be involved in all initiatives across the firm.
  • Don’t think you’re finished. Regularly audit, go back and see if there’s more you and your firm can do.

     

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