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The importance of health and wellbeing conversations in project management

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the importance of health and wellbeing in the workplace in an unprecedented way, and highlighted the importance of the line manager relationship and wellbeing conversations. This is a great benefit to the project management community and our workplaces.

Read the latest article by Siân Kitchen on wellbeing conversations here

The pandemic has impacted us all, those of us in the project management community are not alone; everyone has faced changes in how we do our jobs, alongside lockdowns and other societal changes. Whether project professionals are adjusting to working from home, are site-based and having to manage their work in line with social distancing guidelines, or, like me, have seen projects they were working on put on hold and had a complete change of role as a result of the pandemic. Whatever changes and pressures we in the project management community are dealing with, the importance of good leadership and management, and checking on each other’s health and wellbeing has never been more essential.

My work leading the evaluation of the NHS staff health and wellbeing programme has revealed more than ever the importance of relationships between members of the workforce and their line managers, a vital relationship we have at work, and of fostering a culture of openness and support around health and wellbeing.

So how do we have wellbeing conversations?

As part of an ongoing commitment to supporting the health and wellbeing of everyone who works for the NHS, our programme has developed a set of resources that helps managers have good wellbeing conversations with colleagues and team members. For us in the project community, there may be some hesitation about initiating a wellbeing conversation. The guidance seeks to equip people with the confidence to have these conversations with project teams.

A health and wellbeing conversation is not a healthcare or psychological intervention; however, it is useful to know where you can signpost colleagues if they reveal any health and wellbeing concerns to you. This might be their GP, or for mental health concerns the NHS every mind matters programme. It is also not intended to judge a person’s performance at work, and it’s important that it’s not associated with performance reviews or anything they reveal to work progression or pay.

A health and wellbeing conversation is a supportive, coaching-style one-to-one discussions focused on building individual and team resilience. They take place between an individual staff member and someone they trust at work at a time and place that suits all involved. Simply checking in with your project team and colleagues and asking ‘how are you’ in an open way, is an important factor in individual and team wellbeing. Experts have emphasised the importance of active listening in wellbeing conversations and this is a good technique for all project managers and leaders to practice in our interactions with colleagues and stakeholders.

I know I benefit from taking time to have a discussion about wellbeing with my manager when we meet, rather than just going straight into talking about the programme I manage. I also feel safe in acknowledging that this is a difficult and strange time for many of us and understandably causes some anxiety. I’ll certainly put this into place with my project team, not as a one-off conversation but as part of regular updates and meetings so it becomes normal and a natural part of managing a project team.

Like many, many people working for the National Health Service, March 2020 saw projects I was working on (in workforce transformation as part of Health Education England) stopped and I was redeployed to support the national COVID-19 effort. I started work as a programme manager and evaluator for a new project, a national health and wellbeing support offer for all NHS staff, which developed and launched at great pace. I was newly working from home full time and joined a new team with a high-profile national programme at a time of great uncertainty. Working in health and wellbeing has meant that for me there has fortunately always been an emphasis on team wellbeing. As a project manager I have welcomed the regular check-ins and open conversations about wellbeing with my manager and colleagues, no doubt you will too. 

While the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition contains important information to help project professionals manage workplace stress, we know there are wider considerations for the project community in supporting wellbeing of the whole person. We must also consider the situation in which they found themselves working through the pandemic, and how family and personal circumstances or wider caring responsibilities may also be impacting our work, including working alongside home-schooling or shielding due to the pandemic.

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