On strategic projects stress if often a topic that looms just below the surface. On one of the leadership programmes I’m running it has really come to the fore. The participants are leaders of large strategic construction projects with a complex stakeholder set-up, tough clients, tight budgets and deadlines linked to stringent contracts. In addition, the health and safety concerns associated with the industry add further pressure to those who are in charge. From the participants we have been in touch with through the leadership programme, we have seen many who work excessively long hours and appear to be at the brink of burnout, some who have been signed off work for months due to stress, and others who have successfully learnt from past incidents and who are now able to switch off from it all.
Work-related stress can be deadly
Someone who that happened to is a project manager who we will call Peter. Several years ago Peter was in charge of a portfolio of design and build projects within the rail industry. The workload was significant and the pressure to develop and implement the schemes was unrelenting. Peter’s requests to his line manager and business unit manager for additional support were ignored and after nine months of non-stop work (including weekends and late nights), he collapsed with severe chest pain. He was rushed to hospital where he ended up in the Cardiac High Care. He was diagnosed with Pericarditis, caused by the high levels of stress he had been subjected to.
The incident served as a wake-up call for Peter and his employer that work-related stress can be deadly. Peter’s employer instigated a number of changes, including training to recognise warning signs of stress, regular staff health surveillance and a training programme on how to effectively deal with stress. Peter completed the training and was able to change his approach to pressures at work as a result. He began to exercise, make time for the important things in life and he made sure that he got enough sleep. Very importantly he also leant to ‘switch-off’ from work at the end of the day and he turned off his my mobile phone between 7pm and 7am. The good news is that today – many years later – Peter leads projects that are far bigger and more complex than in the past and experiences them as less stressful.
We can learn a number of things from this story. First of all we must learn to recognise and take the warning signs seriously as project-related stress can be deadly. Secondly, the employer and employee must take join responsibility for minimising negative stress. The employer has a big role to play in not setting unrealistic deadlines and expecting staff to be self-sacrificing super heroes. But the employee must also learn to listen to their mind and body and find the courage to say stop when they are approaching their limits.
Many project managers find it challenging to ask for help
This step is a huge challenge for many project managers who don’t want to appear weak and ask for help. They are high achievers who thrive by going the extra mile to deliver a good piece of work. In many cases these project managers are so driven by the desire to contribute to a strategic project, with major positive results for the public, that they don’t even realize that chronic stress is creeping up on them. They are simply too caught up with work to notice the warning signs.
The third thing we can learn from Peter’s story is that when we set ourselves up correctly and take the right precautions, then it is absolutely possible to keep negative stress at bay and avoid burnout. Not only is that much better for our body and soul, it is also better for the results of our projects. Studies show that when people are stressed their level of IQ drops significantly, which negatively impacts their ability to solve problems and to perform well. That’s because blood and oxygen is diverted from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response.
We need to create a new culture where we’re able to show vulnerability
At a project level we can minimize stress by making sure that our plans are realistic and that we have sufficient contingency in place. On many projects there is an expectation that people are 100 per cent effective, but that’s simply not the case and we have to account for that. Having clear role descriptions, a common set of practices and mutually agreed ground rules will also help minimize stress. There is nothing worse than working in a dysfunctional team and not being able to articulate it or address it. We have to create a culture, not only where we can talk about the behaviours we expect from each other, but also where we can express how we feel. When we’re able to show vulnerability, ask for help, and when we care about our co-worker’s wellbeing, we will have come a long way. Employers, project managers and team members need to jointly create this kind of culture.
Each person has to set and respect their own boundaries
But more action is needed to keep negative stress at bay, we also have to set boundaries at an individual level and be honest about the kind of work life balance we want. We each have to check in with ourselves and notice about how we feel in our body, mind and spirit. Are you operating within your zone of peak performance or have you got to an unhealthy place, where stress has become chronic? Perhaps you have aches and pains, you are unable to sleep at night, you are irritable, you feel overwhelmed and you constantly worry. If you recognize any of these symptoms it’s time to take action. Scale back on the amount of hours you work, make time for friends and family and don’t take work home. Focus on a few activities or hobbies in your spare time that give you energy. These activities don’t have to take up a lot of time. I know people who have successfully lowered their stress levels by walking their dog more regularly on their own, by playing the guitar or by taking out a few minutes to sit in stillness and focus on their breathing.
If you feel trapped because there is too much work on your plate, speak to your manager about it or discuss it with a trusted colleague. Sharing your problem is a healthy response to stress and it might open your eyes to how you can begin to work smarter and delegate more. It can be difficult to see how it’s possible to delegate more, but there will always be a way to empower the team to take more responsibility whilst freeing you up to provide leadership.
About the author
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and facilitator. She is the author of The Power of Project Leadership (now in 2nd edition) and The Project Management Coaching Workbook. You can read more about Susanne's coaching, training and consulting services on www.susannemadsen.com