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  • Natasha Harvey

Managing workplace stress: interview with Liz Nolan

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

Stress Awareness Month is recognised every April and aims to increase public awareness of the global stress epidemic we face today. According to the Mental Health Foundation, over 74 per cent of adults in the UK state that at some point over the last year they have felt overwhelmed by stress or unable to cope.

Many of us have our own ways of dealing with stress and this month, I’d like to share the experiences and stress-beating tips of 3 successful people, whose approaches I admire.

My second profile is of Liz Nolan – Senior legal project manager and solicitor at Sackers law firm.

Liz leads the project management function at Sackers, supporting lawyers and ensuring that clients benefit from specialist knowledge of legal processes and delivery in large, complex and lengthy projects.

Four questions to Liz

What makes your job important to you?

Supporting the people around me, whether they’re lawyers or clients, is a big part of what motivates me in my role. If I can bear some of the project responsibility and alleviate stress so that my colleagues can focus on the core part of their case work, that feels like a huge win to me!

Why do you believe it's so important to manage stress at work?

Everyone wants to do their best and when we’re stressed, we just don’t! The more stressed we are, the worse we perform. While some level of pressure can be helpful especially if like me, you use deadlines as a driver, being able to identify healthy pressure versus unhealthy stress is really important. When stress becomes overwhelming, it can make you feel very isolated. Lockdown and the virtual world have increased that tenfold, making it both more difficult to notice when someone’s struggling, and more challenging when you are struggling to reach out and ask for help.

How do you manage stress at work?

One of the reasons I returned to Sackers was for the emphasis the company places on employee wellbeing. Throughout the organisation, there is a very real commitment to creating a sense of community. This type of culture existed long before COVID came along and has been accentuated by the pandemic with a very proactive approach to prioritising wellbeing and mental health. Senior leaders walk the talk and have worked to create a trusting, non-hierarchical environment where employees feel they can speak up and be heard.

Alongside that we also have regular initiatives to bring fun and happiness to the team - recently sending Easter Egg decorating kits (very much enjoyed by my kids!) and last year a ‘twelve days of Christmas’ series of activities which led up to some virtual drinks. Our CSR Committee, whilst continuing to support charities and the wider community, also run events aimed at bringing people together – they recently set up a series of “Roomie” games so that people used to sharing an office can recreate the sense of sharing a space together. We’re a small organisation, and I believe quite unique in our sector, for the culture that we have.

What coping mechanisms do you use to better manage your own stress?

  • Block out diary time to get priorities and actions in order. When things get really busy, I take the time to map out what’s urgent, what’s important, what can be actioned, delegated, postponed or eliminated. Then, I make a plan!

  • Manage other people’s expectations. I find it easier and less stressful for all parties concerned to communicate clearly what can and cannot be realised, particularly where deadlines are concerned. I highly recommend taking the pressure off and speaking up!

  • Set your own boundaries. I actually wrote a LinkedIn post on this topic, which felt like it touched a bit of a raw nerve given the attention it received! I believe boundaries are fundamental on a couple of levels. As individuals, we need to determine what we need to be effective, including what we might need to ask for and how we might need to protect our time. And as senior leaders, we need to set the example and model these behaviours so that we’re creating a culture where junior team members feel they’re “allowed” to protect their personal time too.

  • Reinvent the “commute,” step away from the screen and get outdoors – recently there has been no separation between work and home, and no commute to give me time to decompress. So, I’ve reinstated a new version of my commute. When I finish work, I go out for a walk, shake off work and arrive home as Mum again.

  • Book a slot to share what’s going on with colleagues or friends – when I’m starting to feel stressed about something, I’ll book in a coffee catch-up with different people to talk things through. I find talking a good way to process stressful situations.

  • Find whatever works for you to focus your mind elsewhere. I have been leaning in to learning French, because I want to and because it’s a great way to occupy my mind and steer the focus away from work.

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