25th November, 2019 | Queen Elizabeth II Centre
25th November, 2019 | Queen Elizabeth II Centre

Withers & Rogers on the impact of This Can Happen

Q&A with Karen and Adam who attended TCH ’18. What did they learn and how have things changed in their workplace?

Karen Greville-Woods and Adam Hirst are from the Sheffield office of Withers & Rogers, one of the largest IP law firms in Europe. They spoke to us about their experiences of mental health in the workplace and how This Can Happen has helped them create meaningful changes for their colleagues and the business as a whole.

Q. What attracted you to This Can Happen last year?

A. The topic of mental health is close to our hearts. People have always faced challenges in the legal profession, it can be a stressful work environment and our colleagues have shared their own experiences of this.

We thought it would be really valuable to see what advice is out there and to hear about the steps that other companies and sectors are taking to address this critical issue.

It’s an area that we are exploring, but we are keen do more. We were starting to challenge the way we work as a company and continue to improve the policies and strategies we have in place. The owners and managers of Withers & Rogers are fully supportive of  our colleagues looking forward and of those who’d had mental health problems in the past.

Staff mental health was something that people were beginning to talk about especially after we heard of a charity called Jonathan’s Voice, which was set up in the name of a patent attorney who took his own life.

The leadership team at Withers & Rogers encouraged the creation of an IP inclusive working group which we are part of and staff wellbeing was put at the top of the agenda. We created wellbeing spaces in our offices and hold regular mental health initiatives.

It was a mission that ignited a passion – we had a fire in our bellies and were motivated to make change. When we heard about This Can Happen, we knew we had to be there and the leadership team supported our desire to drive change. The stats backed up why supporting the mental health of employees is so important and many other companies were signing up so we knew we had to be involved too. Mental health difficulties can also arise when we bring new young attorneys into the company. Young people come to expect great mental health support when they enter an industry that’s notoriously stressful. They have excellent support at University and they expect the same from their employers. It’s fantastic that the stigma is being broken but we must live up to their expectations and support them properly so that they can flourish.

Q. What were your highlights from This Can Happen ‘18?

A. Key messages that we took from the day were be your whole self. Bring your whole self to work. Don’t hide your personal life and if things are tough, don’t just put your head down and hope that no one notices. That’s simply not the way to look after yourself.

One of the speakers said that looking after your staff is like keeping a constant fire burning and every now and again you have to let off a firework.

Karen said that she was moved to tears by the policeman who spoke of his mental health struggles and that his story really resonated and inspired her to encourage her colleagues to be more open about their struggles.

Adam particularly liked the idea of looking after your mental ‘fitness’ rather than mental ‘health’, in the same way that you take care of your physical fitness.

Q. What ideas or strategies did you implement as a result of TCH?

A. Since This Can Happen we have seen significant change in our workplace. We have trained Mental Health First Aiders in all of our offices across the UK. These roles existed previously but their responsibilities and proactivity have increased. We organise lunches and charity events, in fact anything to get people out of their seats and get them talking.

This Can Happen has helped provide momentum to the wellbeing journey that W&R was pursuing.

We were already members of an IP Inclusion group but now we’ve taken what we learnt at TCH to the group and into our offices and we’re feeling the ripple effect. There’s a working group meeting every quarter which effects strategies to create change in our Diversity and Inclusion policies amongst other areas. We have offices across the UK and two or three people from every office have volunteered to be part of the committee that oversees our D&I policy.

Through our involvement with IP Inclusive we organised for Graham McCartney, who set up the charity Jonathan’s Voice, to speak to our office as well as a series of other vital talks. Our revamped mental health vision has grown organically both locally and company-wide.  We’re challenging the idea that whilst the legal world is often stressful, it’s OK to ask for help. We’re opening up the conversation and saying that  it’s everyone’s responsibility to offer a helping hand if we think colleagues or employees are affected by stress.

Q. What were the results?

A. People are beginning to talk and we’re all being more honest about our experiences. We are trying to normalise the idea that life is stressful and it’s OK to struggle. We want to encourage people to speak up and seek help.

We’ve noticed there’s much more honesty about why people are absent, for example people will say if the end of month has been  stressful. This honesty is really allowing us to change things and put support plans in place.

Q. What do you hope to gain at TCH 2019?

A. Young people are the next generation of workers in our industry and beyond, and we really want to ensure that they are provided for in every way. If we want to nurture future leaders we have to make sure that we cater for their needs and look after them as they enter what is traditionally a very stressful industry.

James Gray, one of partners, has been invited to speak on one of the TCH ‘19 panels alongside Graham McCartney of Jonathan’s Voice, the charity set up by a father whose son took his own life as a result of the pressures of working as a patent attorney. We’d like to see more of the legal profession represented at TCH and we are pleased to have representation from one of the firm’s leaders.

Q. Is the legal industry doing enough to tackle mental health?

A. Not enough. It’s still widely accepted that some individuals find the profession stressful. We all know that the legal profession is very deadline-driven and the consequences of missing a deadline are serious and it’s just accepted that working hours can be very long. There is more to be done and this is our challenge.

About the author

Zoe Sinclair is the founder of Employees Matter, the largest provider of employee engagement seminars and webinars in the UK.