Six ways project managers can manage stress
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Gillian Jones-Williams sets out six tried and tested strategies that project professionals can use to help manage stress levels at work.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in almost seven people experience mental health problems in the workplace, which accounts for around 14.7 per cent of the working population.
This year has bought with it new levels of uncertainty. One interesting factor for me with COVID-19 has been the hugely increased stress caused by social media.
Many people have mentioned to me that they don’t remember SARS, which was in 2002 – probably because social media wasn’t a ‘thing’ back then. For me, the stress of thousands of conflicting stories, predictions, thoughts, so-called evidence and advice became so overwhelming that it got to the point where I had to do some mental readjustments to help stay focused and positive.
Stress is a very normal response to lack of control, uncertainty and change – as humans we crave control and when that is taken away from us, we often feel as if our mental health is suffering.
But what is the difference between pressure and stress? And can stress be avoided or managed? Pressure is often caused when there is a huge amount of work to do and tight deadlines, whereas stress is more about the things we perceive that are unmanageable.
For project managers used to managing people, moving deadlines and complex stakeholders, the balance to strike is being able to moderate stress levels for optimal performance while avoiding situations that feel unmanageable.
Here are six techniques that you can use for managing your mental health during high-stress situations:
1. Sleep, meditation and relaxation: Finding sleep strategies that work for you is critical. Your brain cleans itself as you sleep so getting less than eight hours regularly will result in brain fog, which often makes you less effective, so it is a vicious cycle. Mindfulness and breathing exercises have been proven to be very effective in controlling stress.
2. Staying active: Ensuring that you still incorporate some form of exercise into your day, even if time feels ridiculously short. Taking a short walk at lunchtime can reduce stress levels considerably but maintaining other exercising that normally makes you feel good such as gym, swimming, cycling or jogging are hugely important.
3. Eating the right diet: Research has shown that mental health and diet are closely linked. Certain foods adversely affect mood and disrupt sleep, plus weaken your immune system i.e. caffeine, processed sugar, alcohol, high levels of chemicals or preservatives, refined carbs, fried food. To boost your mood, a diet of unprocessed food, fatty fish, nuts, avocadoes, flaxseed, beans, leafy greens, fruit and vegetables will help significantly.
4. Talking to people: Having contact with people that you feel comfortable with and being able to open up about how you feel is absolutely critical. Chances are that they will be feeling exactly the same way and sometimes just knowing you are not alone in your thoughts can help you to normalise situations. They may not be able to give you any solutions but empathy goes a long way to helping the situation. Having fun and laughing with people that you relate to can be the best therapy ever and sometimes we need an outlet like that to regain perspective.
5. Manage your mind: Stress is as stressful as you believe it to be so if you understand that, the way you process information drives how you feel and how you behave. It we process everything in a catastrophic way our filter will mean that we see everything in that light. Applying mind programming tools such as Neuro Linguistic Programming can help you to re-programme your brain positively to remain calm. Avoiding ‘catastrophising’ is important (taking a singular negative event and allowing your brain to run away with it). Often, we can turn one event into the whole project being doomed so it is important to try and focus on what you can influence, or actually do in the next hour/day rather than what concerns you. And consider – in two months’ time, will this matter? It is interesting to consider today the things that were worrying us two months ago, many of them don’t matter at all now.
6. Prioritise: It is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of priorities and become almost paralysed. The best thing to do is to get it all out of your brain by using something like a priority matrix so that you can be sure people are focusing on the tasks that are urgent. Sometimes thinking too far ahead is completely overwhelming. Breaking things down can remove anxiety and help you to feel more productive.
Finally, remember there is no one magic formula for managing stress, and the same strategy might not work for everyone. The important thing is recognition and the ability to ask for help and not feel that it is a weakness to show vulnerability. Talking about it early and honestly is key to being able to thrive in pressurised situations. The success in managing stress depends on the commitment from the person to apply the strategies and not slip back into unproductive habits.
Gillian will be presenting as part of APM’s Power of Projects Takeover virtual event on Tuesday 2 June. Visit apm.org.uk/apm-conference/ to book your free place.
You may also be interested in
• Sellafield’s mental health first approach to construction projects
• How project managers can look after their health in trying times
• Three steps to build your resilience and grow as an individual