Stress and project management go hand in hand, but how we cope with that stress varies. Here we look at the causes of stress within project management, and what to do about them.
Project management is an extremely stressful job, if not one of the most stressful jobs within the business world. And it really isn't a surprise, seeing as a project manager has such huge responsibility, being completely responsible for the outcome of a project. That is including huge projects with huge budgets, complex structures and absolutely massive payoffs - or fallouts depending on the outcome.
Although all PMs tend to be genuinely eager for the challenge of the project management role, understanding that it will be very stressful and difficult, a lot of project managers don't actively recognise when they are actually stressed. A project manager might be completing their job, believing they are a bit tired or challenged, without actually seeing signs that are are suffering from the effects of stress. Stress may show itself in a number of different ways and have a negative impact on the way your brain works, on your health, your personal life, your sleep levels. Although some people may notice projects becoming more difficult to deal with as they get stressed, others may be functioning well within the workplace, but seeing symptoms of stress, like lack of sleep or appetite, a short temper, or frustration on a general capacity, not linking them to work.
As a project manager you can reduce the stress you are under on a daily basis, but the best thing to do is to change how you deal with stress, that way, your stress levels aren't dependant on what the day throws at you. And we all know that as a project manager one day can feel like one book being balanced on your head, the next can feel like the entire library is being piled on That's true whether you take an agile approach to managing projects or follow a more traditional approach such as that from the Association for Project Management (APM). It is really important that you learn to manage your stress when the levels are low, or before you have even started to suffer from it, so you know how to manage it when needed.
What Causes Stress In Project Management?
Project deadlines are quickly approaching, team members may be in conflict or uncommitted, senior management may be unsupportive, the customer may be unhappy - the causes of stress can be incredibly varied within project management. Common reasons for stress within project management are:
- An overly optimistic timeline that cannot be achieved
- The PM does not have control of all the resources
- There aren't enough resources
- Team is remotely based and different timelines are causing difficult coordination
- Conflict within the project
- A stressful project environment
- A lack of project management training
- PM has too big a workload
These are just a small amount of common causes of stress within project management, within the giant pool of causes that can occur on a daily basis.
Dealing With Stress As A Project Manager
First and foremost, the project manager must actively recognise that they are actually stressed and commit to self-development relating to dealing with stress. When a person remains in denial about being stressed, or the effects it can have, they are not open to stress management. Learning to manage stress takes openness, honesty and commitment to change, none of which can happen if a person doesn't accept that they are infact stressed.
There are many different ways to deal with stress, which is great, as it means you will be able to find one or several ways to suit you. No one way will usually fix all problems associated with stress, and there isn't much you can do to get rid of stress completely, bar winning the lottery and going to live on a desert island. So it is important that you aim to work around lots of different types of stress relief, experimenting and figuring out which techniques work best for you.
First and foremost, you may need to address your project management position and it is worth taking a look at your job first to check that you have made it as stress free as possible.
- Workload - If you aren't delegating enough, your manager has been piling on the work and you haven't been speaking up, or you have been overambitious you may have a workload that is too big to manage. If this is the case, you need to think about how you can cut your workload down. You can take on some more project management training to help you learn how to delegate more effectively. You can speak to your manager about reducing your workload. Recognise that things need to change for you to move forward.
- Conflict - it may be you that has conflict or issues with someone in your workplace. Just because you are a PM, doesn't mean you are immune to having your own personality clashes. If this is the case, recognise that the issue is having a detrimental effect on your working life and vow to get it resolved. It may be a case of resolving the problems with the person, or it might be that you have to speak to HR or higher management. Confide in a neutral party for advice.
- Job Dissatisfaction - It may be that you actually don't love your job, which is why you can't cope with the stress - because you don't really care about whether or not you do well. You have no passion or fire for the job you are doing and secretly strive for another career. If this is the case, now is the time to start making a plan for change. Maybe it can be for a few months, for a year or even two years depending on the job you want. You might need project management training, industry training, you might need more experience, but recognise that you can get where you want to but you have to make the first step. Your job will seem much less stressful when you know you're headed where you want to be.
- Work/ Life Balance - Sometimes we are so passionate about our job, our personal life suffers, so we don't get enough downtime or time with our friends and family and it ends up being stressful. It can be so hard to balance work and life at the same time, but it is doable. If this is the root cause of your stress, you need to take a step back and figure out how to bring the balance back. It will take a number of adjustments which may include cutting your workload, being more efficient, learning to be more disciplined with work hours or booking holidays, but it can be done, the first step is recognising the issue and changing it.
Of course, none of these may apply to you and if they do they might not be immediately adjustable, either way, you need to learn how to deal with the stress you are under or might come under, because project management will always be a job that involves stress.
Here are some useful ways to cope with stress:
Checking out is where you mentally remove yourself from a situation in order to get to a better place in your head. If you are holding a team meeting that is particularly stressful, you are completing a task that is very hard, or you are commuting and find yourself ready to burst with frustration at the delays, this method is very useful. It is simply a case of mentally detaching yourself from the situation. Obviously you have to be really careful how you use this and where so you don't just checkout when someone is speaking to you. But you can use it at set moments when you really need to. Simply breathe in for four and out for four, and take yourself to a neutral 'nice place' that makes you feel relaxed. When you are away from work, it is important to practise 'checking out' when you are truly relaxed so you can associate your special place with feeling relaxed.
Detach Yourself From The What If's
When things are stressful, and particularly in this industry, it is easy to start thinking about the what if's. What if I had seen that issue earlier, what if I had of chosen a different project, what if I had of dealt with this a few weeks ago. You have to detach yourself from the what if's otherwise you will stay in the past, and won't be able to focus on the present and the future. Obviously as a PM your job is to think ahead, but as much as possible you should be mindful and practise thinking about what is happening right now, and only thinking as far ahead as the next step to improve that situation. The more mindful you can be, the better.
Conflict resolution is a great skill to have, and is useful both in work and outside of work. Within project management there will be lots of times when tempers flare, or when conflicts are ignored and the stress rises either directly with you, or with people around you. Conflict resolution enables you to actively resolve these issues and therefore remove the cause of the stress.
One thing that we can often do, with our wealth of knowledge, is get into heated conversations at work in order to assert our authority or beliefs. We basically end up fighting to be 'right' all of the time. This is a massive cause of stress, especially as usually we won't ever feel we have been heard. Think about why you have this need to be right, and work on that issue so you stop getting into heated conversations. Working on your emotional intelligence levels will help a lot with this problem.
Sometimes we can see situations as hugely important when really, they aren't. A great trick to deal with this when something seems like 'the end of the world' is to wonder whether you will look back on it in a year and even remember it at all, or you will look back and it won't have been a big deal at all.
Sometimes stress can be resolved by prioritising all the tasks we have to do in the day. If we get the tasks we must do done first thing, before the tasks that are less important, then you will feel super productive by dinnertime. This is an amazing lift and can ensure you are eating your lunch feeling incredibly light.
Recognising Extreme Emotions
If you can recognise when you are reacting strongly over something, you can do something about it. Recognise that you are angry over something when really you should just be irritated, that you are really down about something when really it should just be making you feel a bit sad. When your emotions are extreme, often stress is the problem, and the sooner we recognise the cause, the sooner we become more rational and able to cope better.
Exercise can be an incredible stress reliever and it will not only benefit you physically, but mentally. It will turn on all those happy hormones, help regulate your sleep and enable you to literally work away your stress. Your diet can also have a huge effect on stress levels. Vitamin deficiencies can have an effect on cognitive function and energy levels, and dehydration can have a massive effect on our ability to cope with stress. So drink plenty of water, eat the rainbow and invest in your diet so you're getting everything you need and more, to give you a truly well balanced diet.
Meditation is an amazing skill to learn, and if you can master it, you can give your brain the true break it needs every day. A little yoga in the morning followed by some focused meditation, is a fabulous way to start the day.
How To Tell You're Stressed
You might be suffering from stress if you:
- Are more irritable than usual
- Are feeling very emotional very easily
- Are tired and struggling to sleep well
- Have a reduced appetite or loss of appetite
- Have a more extreme reaction to stressful situations than usual
- Are struggling to cope with everyday project management tasks
Of course, it is possible that you may also be suffering from something more serious than stress, and if that is the case it is important to seek professional help. Severe depression and anxiety can show many of the same symptoms as stress, so be sure to checkout this link if you think you might be suffering from issues more extreme than generalised stress.