Rethinking the pressures: reflections from a graduate consultant

Ewan Main

Product Manager, Mental Health at Work

Halle Stewart is a Project Manager with Turner and Townsend, a consultancy specialising in real estate and infrastructure. In February 2020, we spoke to her about her experience of consultancy, life as a graduate recruit, and taking care of your wellbeing when you’re placed somewhere new every few days or weeks. Then everything changed about workplaces, and we didn’t publish that article.

This year, we returned to discuss the same topics in light of what’s happened to us all. Here, we present a combination of two conversations, separated by a year and a pandemic.

“When I first said to people back home ‘I’m graduating – I’ve got a job as a project manager Wellbeing tips for project managers Project managers' work can be pressurised - this year more than ever. Chris MacLeod of the Association for Project Management shares some tips for helping each other through. View toolkit’, they immediately said it’s a stressful job. But it’s not about being stressful – every job can have some stress. It’s about performing under pressure. If you can work under pressure and you like that organised chaos, you can thrive.

Much of the work is about bringing together different people’s expertise. Before 2020, that often meant being on someone else’s premises. “Some of the sites I’ve been to can be quite remote – you get a train and a bus and a taxi, and then spend the day not talking to anyone. It can get quite lonely, especially if you’re the only one there from the consultancy. Sometimes there’s time to build a relationship there, but sometimes there isn’t.” Whenever possible, shared social or fitness activities could really help here: “Setting up something like a jogging group will encourage people not just to exercise but to talk to each other.” Helping relationships to develop, even if only short-term ones, goes a long way.

It can be hard to adjust when you're just beginning your working life

As a new graduate recruit, it’s easy to feel an extra pressure. “It can be hard to adjust when you’re just beginning your working life Why employers need to support a vulnerable demographic in the workplace – young professionals Young people in the UK are facing a mental health crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic has only made this harder to tackle. Mailies Fleming, who worked in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing team as part of the CharityWorks graduate programme, explains why this is a problem for her age group, and what employers could be doing to… View blog post.” And during the pandemic, there’s an extra layer to this: “I cannot imagine joining your first job after university in lockdown. Your first role isn’t easy, so all the silly questions you might ask someone next to you, you’ve now got to go out of your way to find someone to ask.”

A woman works from home.

Like many others, Halle moved back home when the lockdowns began, and still works from there. “I really struggled with not being in the office. I like the social aspect of it – you feel more connected with your team.” There’s also the fact that, as we’ve written elsewhere, the sense of transition between home and work can be important. “It took me a while to realise, but I like the commute. A couple of hours to listen to a podcast, and time to decompress at the end of the day, especially if it’s been busy.” When your home or family is immediately present, there’s no time to adjust your mindset. Halle has replaced the commute with a daily run straight after work, “so I still have that time that divides work from life.”

I did try baking once, but it was an absolute disaster

Many of us have felt the impetus to try new things, learn and improve. “The first thing I bought in lockdown was a Kindle and a load of books. I did try baking once but it was an absolute disaster. Just find what works for you – it’s about trial and error.” The main thing, for Halle, is not to put pressure on ourselves at an already worrying time. “‘I need to run 5K; I need to make banana bread…’ You don’t. You don’t need to do anything.”

A baking mishap.

Consultants are used to working with distributed colleagues, in project teams made up of people from different departments, organisations and countries. In that respect, not much has changed: “I work at a global company and collaborate with people all around the world, so in normal circumstances we wouldn’t have met anyway.”

You can continue working effectively regardless of where you are

But there’s been a shift in the way people see and interact with each other – with teams feeling more equal and accepting of one another, which we know is helpful for wellbeing. “Before we tended to rely on everyone being in one room but now you can flex between meeting people in person or virtually. Digital tools have increased collaboration, so you can contribute and continue working effectively regardless of where you are.”

There’s an intimacy to working remotely with your immediate colleagues too. “We know a lot more about each other because kids come in, cats come in and deliveries arrive.” Workplace expectations have changed, and we’ve started to trust one another to make work and life fit together. It’s perhaps a useful corrective to the increasing concerns over long-hours cultures in recent years. “Initially you felt guilty to load the dishwasher. Now you know your efforts aren’t forgotten even if you aren’t in the office being seen to be working.

An international Zoom call.

A year after the first English lockdown, we published a video One year on, what are we doing differently? One year since the first UK coronavirus pandemic lockdown, we asked four different professionals what positive changes they have made. View toolkit of people sharing positive changes they have made. For Halle, much of it comes down to realising what’s really important. That includes understanding that everyone’s trying, and everyone has a hard time sometimes.

“As a project manager you do have a lot of pressures on you – but everyone’s now mindful of the fact we’re in a pandemic. Everyone’s got a different challenge when you speak to them. You might be someone who didn’t think much about mental health before, but in lockdown you start to see those effects.” So, Halle begins every meeting asking everyone how they are, and meaning it. “You might be the only person they’ve spoken to that day.” Share your own experiences too – “That way, people don’t think it’s just them.”

Small interactions can make all the difference

When we spoke in 2020, she was clear that simple, small interactions can make all the difference in a job that can be pressurised. “Sometimes just having a chat​Take 10 Together: Starting the conversation PDF Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England is calling on everyone to ‘Take 10 Together’ and take ten minutes to start a conversation about mental health. Free By: Mental Health First Aid England View resource with someone makes the day better. If you’re grabbing your morning coffee, grab it with somebody else.” That’s been harder, or impossible, for the last year – but the restrictions have really emphasised how much those moments add to our lives. “All the small things that you take for granted are really, really important. Meeting a friend for a coffee is going to be a really big deal.”

And finally, although the office jogging groups aren’t on the cards these days, Halle still advocates getting outside whenever possible. “Even take meetings on the go​Active meetings PDF This one-page guide from Unilever outlines one way to include physical activity in meetings, by changing them from the traditional sitting-down format into walking meetings.Free By: Unilever View resource if you can.” Doesn’t that make them go differently? Yes, it does: “You can hear the birds sing.”

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