How project managers can look after their mental health in trying times

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To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, Andrew Higson and Ian Holden, founders of mental health charity Black Dog Outdoors, provide some tips for boosting wellbeing during stressful times.

Project management can be a stressful profession. As project managers, we often work long hours with demanding schedules and to tight budgets. We enjoy it though, right? We are that special breed of person that can engage and react under pressure, keeping (somewhat) calm and carrying on.

This is a sweeping generalisation, but it probably holds true for many of us. It is also imaginable that some people can perform, and remain focused, under stress better than others. Perceivably, some have a low trigger point, whereas others can take on heaps without any observable effect.

However, prolonged exposure to stress is not good for our mental health. Add COVID-19 into the mix and those stress levels are, for many people, heightened right now.

So how can we look after our mental health while still functioning as effective project managers?

We’re all different

The first thing to be mindful of is that we all have mental health, and, like our physical health, it needs looking after. Sometimes we’re riding on the crest of a wave, other times we’re at a low ebb, but there are no norms – we’re all different.

Not looking after our mental health, or ignoring our stress levels, can lead to mental illness – so it’s important that we strike the right balance.

There are some general lifestyle changes that we can all make to improve our mental health, such as:

  • eating a balanced diet;
  • cutting down on caffeine and alcohol; and
  • maintaining a regular sleep pattern.

There are also numerous activities that we can take up to improve our wellbeing and act as a release from work stress. Under normal circumstances, we both like to escape to national parks to find balance in our lives, either alone or with our wives, children and friends.

We’re unable to do that at present. So what activities are we doing to challenge ourselves (both physically and mentally) within the constraints of social distancing?

Boost those endorphins

We’ve both increased the amount that we are running since lockdown was implemented, which gives us structure and a daily routine. Setting ourselves incremental goals and targets provides a challenge and motivation to keep pulling the running shoes on.

Exercise is also a great way to reduce stress, as it lowers cortisol levels and releases endorphins. Outdoor exercise even more so, as you get the added benefit of a Vitamin D hit.

If running isn’t your thing, there are other options, such as cycling and walking. And for those who aren’t running/high-impact fans, why not try yoga, which increases strength and mindfulness? Combine this with the benefits of being outside and you’re onto a winner.

Get a little weird

There are also activities that you can do with children if you have a young family at home. Consider what used to make you happy as a child. Colouring – do it! Running – do it! Dressing up – grab the kids or a partner and get a little creative and weird.

If you have woods or a park nearby, then go and learn about flowers. There are some excellent resources, such as PlantNet and Field Studies Council, that can be used to identify plants while out on a daily walk. The fun bit is then going home and learning something about those plants. It’s relaxing, educational and fun for all ages.

Joy, fear, sadness, anger

In everyday life, it’s easy to ignore how we feel. Think about it right now – how are you? In times of stress, it’s even easier to ignore how we feel. Make a note to yourself to consider how you feel throughout the day at regular intervals and just use the core feelings: joy, fear, sadness and anger. If you feel frustrated, it’s anger. If you feel anxious, it’s fear etc.

We ask our friends how they are, why wouldn’t we ask ourselves?

The above isn’t an exhaustive list, and some won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but hopefully it can provide some inspiration for you to help find some balance and manage those stress levels.

Take care, stay safe and keep checking in on your mental health.

Andrew Higson and Ian Holden work as project managers in the construction industry. They are both qualified Mental Health First Aiders and, outside of work, run the charitable organisation Black Dog Outdoors (www.blackdogoutdoors.co.uk) to help encourage and promote improved mental health through outdoor recreation.

Look out for the summer issue of Project journal, where Andrew explains the origins of Black Dog Outdoors, and its journey from concept to fully-fledged mental health charity.

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Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

Andrew Higson

Posted by Andrew Higson on 19th May 2020

About the Author

Andrew Higson, alongside and Ian Holden, work as project managers in the construction industry. They are both qualified Mental Health First Aiders and, outside of work, run the charitable organisation Black Dog Outdoors (www.blackdogoutdoors.co.uk) to help encourage and promote improved mental health through outdoor recreation.

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