This article was authored by Claire Tanner
Mental health is a broad and complex topic, with no easily identifiable causes when things go wrong and certainly no easy remedies. One way or another poor mental health has undoubtedly impacted us all. Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity for each of us, whether that be as a parent, an employer, a colleague or a friend to examine the roles we as individuals play in supporting good mental health: the conversations that we have, the language that we use and the listening that we do.
IP firms have, by their very nature, high performance cultures: they recruit high achievers who have superb attention to detail and can quickly understand the latest scientific developments, as well as complex British and European IP law; people who can manage and meet deadlines, juggle high workloads, and all of that whilst ensuring clients are kept in the loop. There is no doubt about it, IP offers exciting and challenging careers to those high achieving individuals. This works well where those individuals have a healthy striving for excellence, where they set themselves high standards with achievable results and where they recognise that the path to success is full of hurdles to be overcome, not to trip over. Many will have highly rewarding careers spanning the whole of their working lives.
When that healthy striving for excellence becomes unhealthy perfectionism, poor mental health can ensue resulting in anxiety, depression, stress and burnout. What research has shown is that unhealthy perfectionism is common among young people who have been high academic achievers. It is estimated that almost 30 percent of undergraduate students experience symptoms of depression, and unhealthy perfectionism has been widely associated with these symptoms. Unhealthy perfectionism is where individuals react to mistakes in an extreme and highly self-critical manner, where they place unrealistic demands on themselves and fail to give themselves credit for their achievements. There is a fine balance between a healthy striving for excellence and unhealthy perfectionism.
Of course, poor mental health at work is not exclusive to IP, it is endemic in all places of work and exacerbated by Covid19. The challenge within IP in particular is the dichotomy between high performance and good mental health: we strive to recruit high achieving individuals, we put them through professional exams, set them deadlines, targets and objectives and measure their output. Yes, we want them to be their best selves at work, but we also want them to be their true, authentic selves who can raise their hands when things get too much without fear of not feeling, or not being seen, as perfect.
How best can IP firms support those who fall into the unhealthy perfectionism camp? In 2017 Stevenson & Farmer produced their “Thriving at work” report. Their analysis showed that around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition, yet 8 in 10 employers reported no cases of employees disclosing a mental health condition. The 2019 IP Inclusive survey on stress and mental wellbeing showed that respondents were experiencing high levels of work-related stress and mental health difficulties compounded by a reluctance to let their employers know about it or to take time off. The main causes of stress and anxiety were workload and related problems (e.g. deadlines) driven by a fear of making mistakes and ‘not feeling up to the job.’ Over 20% had considered leaving their current job.
We may have started on the path to create environments at work in which people can thrive, the question now is what more should we be doing? Many organisations, including GJE, now have wellbeing strategies, mental health first aiders, emergency helplines and accessible counselling services. We encourage collaborative working, not competition, plenty of interaction between staff across the firm, and we lead by example with leaders talking openly about mental health.
At the end of the day, though, it’s the little things that perhaps count for the most – a quick phone call just to see how a colleague is doing, a shared cup of coffee over Teams (or in person once restrictions allow), and lending a friendly, non-judgemental ear if and when needed. Our belief is that having a prominent, firm-wide wellness strategy reinforces the importance of these little things and not only leads to people feeling better supported but also helps to break down the barriers that prevent individuals seeking help when they do need it.