According to the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive, 822,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK in 2020/21. And it’s easy to imagine many more cases going unreported.
Here, we look at why project professionals may be particularly prone to stress, how to spot the signs and three ways you can nip it in the bud…
Project management and stress
Project professionals have found themselves with an increasingly fraught workload over the past few years. Projects are being derailed by everything from a lack of freight drivers, materials and time, to traffic jams at borders, squeezed budgets, and rapidly escalating costs. Meanwhile, project managers may be fighting a greater portion of these fires from home – while aiming the hose at all sorts of domestic flare-ups too.
Of course, project professionals tend to like a challenge. That’s often a key factor in drawing them to the work in the first place. The problem comes in failing to acknowledge when that pressure has ballooned into something more destructive.
“Stress accumulates with too much pressure,” says Andrew Higson, Contract Manager at Balvac, the structural maintenance and repair company. He’s also co-founder of Blackdog Outdoors, a charity that aims to boost mental health by reconnecting people with the outdoors. “When jobs are going good, life's good. But when it flips and starts to become too much to cope with, the stress can build up. A lot of people just carry on until they fall.”
How to spot the signs
Stress manifests in a range of ways. All have the potential to sap a project manager’s ability to do their job.
For example, it can spark anger and irritability, mood swings and erratic behaviour. Or it can have the polar opposite effect: sheer apathy. The sufferer chooses to take their foot off the gas as a coping mechanism, and they cease to function anywhere near effectively.
Either way, things slip, details get missed and quality drops. The project manager may float along not challenging anything, so as to avoid any conflict; or they become such a difficult presence that nobody wants to drag them into decisions. And the project risks being starved of critical experience, insight and perspective.
Three ways to nip stress in the bud
1. Take time out
Start by monitoring your workload and pressure levels, and then build in ways to alleviate them. That may simply mean turning your laptop off and going for a walk. Vitamin D is an essential stress regulator, especially as winter approaches.
These days there’s less expectation to turn up at 7am and work through to 7pm. Many organisations now realise people perform better with a more flexible approach. So work a couple of daily ‘non-negotiables’ into your routine, whether that’s swimming or training, mindfulness and meditation, or knitting. And don’t feel guilty about taking the time. It’s an investment that will make you function better in your job.
2. Build your resilience
Building your resilience increases your capacity to respond to pressure, and can make you more optimistic, which potentially prevents the development of stress.
“Optimistic people are likely to grow after adversity, because they respond positively and use the experience to learn and develop,” says Higson. “Optimism provides a benchmark for levels of pressure. You’ll realise you’ve done this before, so can do it again, or that you’ve been through worse. Lack of optimism can lead to a more negative response, manifesting in post-traumatic stress.”
One potential path to resilience is to find a new pursuit that pushes you beyond your comfort zone outside of work – weather that’s climbing, learning an instrument, or volunteering to help people with challenging needs.
3. Talk about it
Stress usually happens when we’re in a situation we feel we can’t control. To minimise it, you should be talking openly about capacity and expectations – with your clients and contractors, and within your own organisation.
And if discussing mental health isn’t yet part of the culture? Be the one to point that out. Your colleagues – and likely the other stakeholders in your projects – will thank you for it.
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