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Mental health in intellectual property – breaking down barriers

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 open up about their internal battles. While some may still feel reluctant to speak out, it is widely recognised that mental illness affects millions globally, with one in four people said to suffer with some form of this 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 contributing factor which is frequently associated with the development of mental health issues is work-related stress, something which professionals in the intellectual property industry are no stranger to. Long hours, complex cases, rising expectations and vast workloads can all result in elevated stress levels in IP, which ultimately contribute to anxiety and, if ignored, could develop into depression.

A 2017 HSE study showed that the legal profession is the third most highly stressed in the UK, behind only welfare professionals, 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. This IP task force, whose founder members include the Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (CITMA),  and the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) is led by chartered patent attorney and former CIPA President Andrea Brewster OBE.

She said that while stress and mental illness are issues which affect most people at some time, patent attorneys could be more susceptible due to their Type A personalities. “Their stress levels are of course then increased by the long hours culture, high workloads, outcomes-focused appraisals, the perceived need for self-sufficiency and a strong fear of the consequences of making a mistake. By recognising and addressing mental health problems in the workplace, removing the stigma associated with them and giving both ourselves and our colleagues more resilience to cope with the stress we encounter, we can build more inclusive workplaces where everyone can flourish.”

But what can patent and trade mark attorneys in the intellectual property profession do if they are concerned about mental health worries?

Recognising the signs

Often under-pressure attorneys may be unaware they are reacting or behaving out of character. As stress builds within their role they may begin to demonstrate physical or emotional symptoms as they attempt to internalise their issues and cope without support. But for those around them, this could be the first warning signs of a mental health disorder manifesting itself. Common physical and emotional indicators which point to growing mental health issues include: fatigue, over tiredness, headaches, and mood swings, along with becoming hyper emotional, and obsessive. Attorneys who begin to recognise these signs should seek help immediately in a bid to minimise the impact this could be having on their mental state. 

Reducing stress

Stress, anxiety and associated issues can often become overwhelming before we are fully aware of what is happening. Experiencing fatigue or failing to take a lunch break are daily issues that many workers experience, however over a sustained period this could begin to affect your mental state. Once it is identified that you may be behaving out of character or feeling a physical strain resulting from work, it is time to take action.

Asking for help

Recognising that you are unable to mentally cope with daily challenges which may be overwhelming you, is vital. Many attorneys may be tempted to push through these feelings, which could exacerbate their issues and ultimately work to their detriment at a later stage. As such, it is crucial that attorneys speak to a manager at their earliest opportunity before they are consumed by stress or anxiety. Burying concerns could result in physical symptoms, such as sleeplessness, fatigue, or upset if it is not addressed swiftly.

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, our very own Dr Jayne Nation said “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. 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.”

When it comes to mental health, it is essential that people continue to speak out, whether that is to ask for help, or continue to raise awareness across the IP profession.With attitudes to mental health shifting and inclusivity embraced throughout the industry it is clear that a positive change is being made. However, work still needs to be done to break down the stigma surrounding the mental health taboo.



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