Skip to content

Stress on projects – are you causing it or fighting it?

Added to your CPD log

View or edit this activity in your CPD log.

Go to My CPD
Only APM members have access to CPD features Become a member Already added to CPD log

View or edit this activity in your CPD log.

Go to My CPD
Added to your Saved Content Go to my Saved Content
Gettyimages 607477463 Clay

Picture the scene.

Senior stakeholders had asked the project team to produce a plan stating clearly defined outcomes. The team were struggling. They were confused over scope, timelines and available budgets, and they didn’t understand the concept of milestones.

A workshop was set up to “thrash things out”.

In that meeting – held in a stifling room with locked windows – some people objected. Some shouted. Others looked bored. The poor project professional presenting didn’t know what to do. He sweated and appeared increasingly frantic.

When stress strikes

This was a situation witnessed by APM Fellow Sunchana Johnston when she became Governance Manager of the project management office on a huge technology project. 

It’s a familiar picture for many project professionals. Things are going awry on the ground while, on a macro-scale, stakeholders are asking questions, costs are ramping up and the project is hurtling towards deadline.

Stress is a natural response. A certain amount may actually be good for you. But it’s important to keep it in check.

Johnston’s approach was to use the break in that meeting to reset and restore some perspective. She helped the presenter start again with a light-hearted icebreaker – about the Roman origins of the word ‘milestones’ – and soon everyone was responding with warmth, laughter and acceptance.

Same room, same people. Opposite outcome. 

This is just one story from Johnston’s new book, Successfully Managing Stress For Project Managers.

Fight loneliness and boost your mood

Here are five other tips she offers for keeping stress under control:

1. Be proactive

Project managers wouldn’t think twice before conducting a risk assessment on a project. Stress is no different – and no less important to get the jump on.

“Stress is one of the biggest killers of men under the age of 40 in the UK,” says Johnston.

She suggests applying the ‘what if’ tool, which forecasts how particular changes to a project will affect its environment and outcomes in future. This can help put things in perspective when you’re feeling stressed, preventing your mind from entering a spin of imminent catastrophe. 

2. Create the right environment

Stress is contagious. If you’re not careful, its effects can be easily transmitted. As project manager, you get to establish the rules of meetings to prevent unnecessary debates from draining people’s time and raising the temperature in the room. Project meetings should have a clear agenda. They should start on time, include comfort breaks and finish with an agreed summary of actions.

And if arguments do break out? “Ensure people respect each other by speaking calmly and allowing others to continue uninterrupted,” says Johnston.

3. Take care of your health

Treat your health as a project that needs managing too. Johnston advocates everything from organised sport to the simplicity of an early night, decent food, attending to your breathing and taking regular strolls.

“Early morning walks with a friend will boost your mood and increase fitness,” she says. “Heading out early means making the most of natural light and fresh air. If we go for a brisk walk with someone we love, we increase our heart rate, improve our mood and strengthen our muscles.”

4. Talk to people

Flexible working can be great for work-life balance and productivity, but it also raises the risk of isolation and over-work. And the attendant loneliness can have an extremely negative impact on our wellbeing.

“Stress strikes in the dark, getting hold of us when we feel alone,” writes Johnston. “Thinking negative thoughts and assuming worst-case scenarios allow anxiety to thrive.”

When you experience anxiety, it’s natural to avoid contact and hide away, but it’s key to talk to people about what’s really going on. Having honest conversations with friends and family can give invaluable perspective, so make sure you remember to socialise at least once a week. Talking about how you feel may not be easy, but it’s a vital stress-buster.

5. Consider the impact you have

While it’s important to examine your own exposure to stress, consider how you may be causing it for your team – such as in the expectations you set. Communication is key. Think about your words as well as your actions. If you expect your people to adopt a new technology, for example, make sure you explain why it’s valuable to the organisation, as well as making it easy and useful for them.

By considering your potential impact on others, you may find yourself with a greater awareness of the stress affecting you too.


You may also be interested in:


Join the conversation!

Log in to post a comment, or create an account if you don't have one already.