Managing workplace stress: interview with Liz Nolan

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. 

Managing workplace stress: interview with Kate Goldman-Toomey

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. 

Despite the increased media coverage and awareness campaigns surrounding mental health, there is still a long way to go to tackle one of the great public health challenges of our time.

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.

First up is Kate Goldman-Toomey – Director of Partnerships & Philanthropy for Macmillan Cancer Support.

Leading a team of 60 people, Kate builds meaningful, sustainable relationships with businesses and high-net worth individuals to generate income and positive impact for people living with cancer and their support networks.

Four questions to Kate

What makes your job important to you?

For the last 20 years I’ve been working across different organisations in the non-for-profit sector raising funds to support some of the world’s most vulnerable people to live their lives fully. 
I believe that individuals and companies have a shared responsibility in supporting our Society and my role is about harnessing the power of the private sector to make a difference where it matters. Having a sense of purpose in what I do is a fundamental part of who I am – I want to spend my time and energy working to bring value to the world we live in.

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

There’s a perception that working in the charity sector is somehow a bit fluffy and easy and in fact I’d say it’s the polar opposite! As a team we’re very commercially focussed – most of my colleagues have private sector backgrounds. The principal difference in our line of work is that we are very aware that if we don’t raise funds, it’ll have a very real impact on people’s lives.  

My team is made up of very bright, very driven people who are passionate about their work. They work hard as it’s part of their nature and that’s amplified by the fact that they care deeply about what they do. When you combine that type of profile with today’s technology, the situation with COVID and remote working, it can be really tough. We live in a world where we’re always ‘on’ and as a people leader, it’s really important to recognise the different pressures your team members may be facing.

How do you manage stress at work? 

As a team leader, I spend a lot of my time talking to people and checking in. I joined Macmillan during COVID, so everything we’ve been doing as a team has been remote. Across the organisation, we’ve had “reconnect conversations” during February where every manager spent at least an hour talking to direct reports to understand how they’re doing and what support they need. And since the pandemic set in, all staff members have access to a Wellbeing offer with online mindfulness, exercise classes, counselling. 

With regards to my own team, I believe that a big part of managing stress is also about the climate you create as a leader. I want my team to have an open, trusting environment where they feel comfortable speaking up and sharing when things aren’t going well – and that starts with me. I try to be open about what’s going on for me in terms of challenges, and I’ve noticed that by sharing this, it creates a trusted space where others feel they can express themselves safely too.

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

  • Take a break – in fresh air and in natural surroundings if you can. Working full-time from home I realised that I was getting very engrossed in work and not taking any breaks. I now plan times in my diary when I can go out and get fresh air. 
  • Turn off notifications  I do this to increase my productivity when I need to concentrate fully on a particular project or document.
  • Embrace mindfulness – I’ve become an advocate of it and it means I can be much more in the present and able to tap into what’s going on in my mind. I can feel when my stress levels are rising, and by noticing it, I can choose what to do about it. 
  • Take exercise – feeling out of control and overwhelmed is a big trigger for me so I think about what things I can control. I make time to do a 20 min High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout every morning even if that means starting work later and finishing later. It transforms my mental health, boosts my creativity and makes me buzz! 
  • Recognise thoughts are not facts – when you get lost inside your head and negative self-talk, notice it’s happening and focus on breathing. 
  • Talk to other people – everyone is different, but sharing how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking with people I trust really enables me to process negative emotions.