Overcoming Stress as a Project Manager

The Project Management Conference, PM Summit (which takes place in Dublin) have recently carried out some research which stated that 40% of project managers (52,000 sample size) suffered from prolonged stress.

This is worrying because while most of us will face stress regularly during projects or work in general this is usually contained in the workplace or a short period of time. Prolonged (or Chronic) stress however is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives he or she has little or no control.

It’s easy to imagine this happening to a project manager who has been given overwhelming targets or who is being put under pressure by higher management.

Causes of Stress

Causes of stress in project management tend to be born out of unrealistic targets and deadlines. If you are set overwhelming goals then your brain views this as a threat, triggering stress whenever you are in this high-pressure environment.

Dr. Karl Albrecht, a stress-reduction specialist, developed the four types of stress in his 1979 book, “Stress and the Manager” (see table). All of which can be related to what a project manager goes through daily.4 types of stress

  1. Time stress – There is a pressure on the project manager to be time bound. Time deadlines are always going to be a part of projects, however unrealistic time deadlines can instil a sense of fear that they won’t be met.
  2. Situational stress – Project manager observes situation stress when they come into a situation that they have no control over. The situation could be emergency, loss of status, perceived significant losses or some unexpected risk happens. No project ever goes perfectly to plan, and this is probably a regular occurrence for most managers.
  3. Encounter stress – This is a kind of stress where the project manager is worried about encountering a person or situation which you have perceived to be unpredictable, unpleasant. This could be something as simple as having to report to a member of higher management who you don’t see eye to eye with.
  4. Anticipatory stress – A project manager will feel this kind of stress when they anticipate an upcoming event will have a negative effect on the project.

When confronted with these stressors your body prepares for this situation. This can be physiological effects such as: increased heart rate, heavy breathing, that feeling of butterflies in the stomach etc. When the stressor is gone your body switches back to normal, however if that stressor is a constant throughout the project then it can have a negative effect on you and as a result the project.

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Prolonged exposure to stress could potentially lead to sleep disruption, impaired cognitive function and elevated blood pressure.

These effects are likely to lead to a project stuttering. In 2013, Teresa Amabile of Harvard University did a study to find out how well a project moved forward (or not) when the managers were having a good day vs a bad day. We can see from the table below how having a bad day can lead to increased setbacks.

Techniques for Managing Stress

Stress is a major problem that can lead to some serious negative effects on both projects and those managing them. It’s vital that we learn to manage and deal with stress in the correct way. The study by Project Management Conference, PM Summit that found 40% of project managers were stressed also found that 80% of participants had never had any kind of formal stress management training!

So how can we manage stress?

Anyone who has taken any kind of project management certification will know that organisation is key to a successful project. Whether that’s by setting to do lists, prioritising tasks correctly or delegating when necessary. One thing that is particularly effective though (especially when feeling like there is an overwhelming amount to do) is to break up larger tasks into small manageable chunks. This is so effective mentally as we feel like we can attack these small tasks without becoming distracted with anxiety.

Creating a positive atmosphere and outlook for yourself and your team is equally important. Create a network of support and trust between you and your team. This kind of environment will help to maintain your own positive outlook as well as others. Always spend time thinking about what is working well and how to expand on it. When something is negative, stop and think strategically about how it can be turned into a positive outcome.

You can maintain positive attitudes by taking regular breaks, get away from your desk and do something that makes you relaxed and takes your mind away from work for 5 minutes. Talking and laughing with co-workers will help make the team more relaxed and helps strengthen the bond between you.

Finally don’t be afraid to ask for help or say no. Sometimes we think asking for help makes us look like we don’t know what we are doing. The truth about modern work is that we rely on the cooperation and support of others. If asking for help means getting the job done better then this will reflect well on you for asking. We also need to learn when to say no, we know our own limits better than anyone. By taking on too much, you can get yourself into a situation that is not in your, or your projects, best interest.

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