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How Project Managers Can Deal with Chronic Stress and Avoid Burnout

Stress Management for Project ManagersAlmost all project managers have experienced stress on their projects.

Some of the external triggers for stress could be a large number of stakeholders, an unreasonable client, a high degree of technical complexity, a challenging team or lack of clear expectations. There are a myriad of reasons why our adrenalin levels can spiral out of control and cause us to work long hours – not just for a few weeks but for months at the time.

Whereas short bursts of stress can have a positive effect on performance, prolonged stress is harmful to the body and can cause burnout.

This type of chronic stress can’t be blamed solely on external factors from the project environment, but is more likely to be related to deeply rooted habits and beliefs on the inside. Interestingly, people often aren’t able to detect on their own that they suffer from chronic stress even though it may be blatantly obvious to others. That’s because we become used to the high levels of adrenaline and get addicted to the buzz it creates.

If we are to get better to avoiding chronic stress we have to take the warning signs seriously, including insomnia, low patience and not being able to sit still for a couple of minutes in a meeting without fidgeting or checking the phone.

An effective way to tell if someone is overly stressed is if they can’t relax when they want to, not just during a low-key project meeting or a social event at work, but also during a holiday or on a Sunday afternoon.

High achievers are most prone to stress

The project managers who are most prone to stress and burnout are type A personalities who are driven to succeed.

They have a high level of energy and feel that they are able to deal with anything. In a project setting type A’s are highly sought after because they get things done and are keen to fulfil expectations. But although their assertiveness and desire to please get the project delivered and earn them some brownie points as a manager, their high expectations and drive take a toll over time.

Stress management expert, Angela Savitri, says that although popular stress beating techniques such as exercising, practicing yoga and meditating do have a place, they won’t help those who suffer from chronic stress because they just add to their to-do-list.

Instead she talks about a number of steps, or shifts, we need to make internally to help us address the root causes. These steps will help us create, what she calls, a sustainable external environment as well as a sustainable internal environment.

The external environment relates to working reasonable hours and having a sensible social calendar without too many draining commitments. The internal environment is about approaching ourselves with more softness and gentleness and not being so self-critical.

Step 1: Make important personal values part of day-to-day work

The first step that can help someone avoid chronic stress is to go from being a goal-oriented achiever to someone who lives according to their values.

When we become too achievement-oriented and measure our successes in terms of the milestones we hit we become overly attached to the outcome. A more fulfilling way to live would be to enjoy the journey and to build sound relationships that we value on a day-to-day basis instead of simply getting to the next milestone.

This is also true for project work.

Success shouldn’t simply be measured in terms of a completed project, but also in terms of how it was delivered.

Did the team function well and were people happy to come to work? Was there a high level of trust between the stakeholders and did we feel that we were learning new skills on a day-to-day basis?

If growth and connection are values that are important to us, we should strive to make them part of our daily project work. We should open up to people so that we get our need for love, joy and connection fulfilled. Asking people how they are doing and showing genuine interest may be a much better stress buster than many wellness programmes.

Step 2: Neutralize emotions before making a decision

The second step is about learning to be in the moment and to respond appropriately to situations as opposed to over-reacting.

If we receive a piece of bad news on our project for instance – or a team member is rude to us – it can be tempting to react straight away and to let our emotions take over. When that happens stress hormone is released in the body as we subconsciously prepare to either fight the situation or run away.  The result is a kneejerk reaction, which we may later regret and feel even more stressed about.

A much better way to handle the situation would be to pause for at least two minutes, breathe deeply and neutralize ourselves before we make a decision or say anything.

When our body is no longer tense and our mind is calm, we are in a much better position to consciously choose the right response and to make a wise decision. Not only will it have a calming effect on us as the project manager, it will also positively impact the team and stakeholders as well as the many decisions that have to be made on a project.

Step 3: Manage energy levels

The third step is to be able to self-regulate and to give ourselves the right amount of stress.

We all have different levels of energy and different thresholds for how much we can handle and it’s important that we learn to respect that. We can for instance have white space in the diary where nothing is planned and learn to not feel guilty about it. Another thing we can do is to identify what our zone of peak performance looks like and then strive to operate within it.

A practical way for project managers to do that would be to reflect on all the activities that tend to drain them during their day and all the activities that give them energy.

The equation has to stack up. Burnout happens when we spend more energy than we gain for a prolonged period of time.

When I did this exercise many years ago I came to the conclusion that energy wise I was doing ok up until 6pm. At that point I would normally spend about an hour responding to emails before going home. It was that last hour that drained me. Once I realised this I began to leave the office a bit earlier and doing more of the activities outside of work that revitalized me.

Step 4: Become a compassionate observer

The fourth step is to become a compassionate observer of thoughts and feelings instead of being overly critical and judgemental.

Many of us get stressed because we expect people, surroundings and our own behaviour to be a certain way.

Having high standards can be very helpful on a project where it encourages the team to produce a quality outcome. But high standards can be a problem if they become unrealistic, uncompromising and a cause of stress. If something on our project isn’t being done the way we want it, we must become aware of our thoughts and feelings without attaching too much judgement them. If there is a problem it needs to get fixed, but it doesn’t mean that harsh judgements and stress hormones have to run wild.

Being a compassionate observer, however, doesn’t mean that we should avoid or suppress our emotions. When we suppress an emotion, for instance by ignoring that a team member has made a mistake, it can bottle up on the inside and cause more stress.

We have to get much better at calmly talking about issues even if it’s uncomfortable. If a team member isn’t delivering what they promised it should neither be ignored nor be a cause of stress. It’s simply a situation that needs to be discussed in a neutral way without too many judgements.

If often makes us uncomfortable to tackle issues in such an honest and neutral way, but it seems this is exactly what we need to get better at if we are to permanently combat stress on our projects.



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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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