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The problem of hidden burnout on projects

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Are we tired yet? The extraordinary working practices required by COVID-19 are leaving many project managers exhausted, writes Richard Young

A tough few months have taken their toll on the personal resilience of project professionals worldwide, and many are, quite rightly, now reaching out for guidance. 

“I’ve been running on fumes for the last few weeks. Between COVID, working from home, three mission-critical projects – for which I only had the resources to manage one well – and a whole lot of upset, de-prioritised stakeholders, it’s just been a lot.”

So said one user in the project management forum on Reddit – and it’s a story that is playing out across social media as the strain of lockdown bites.

Stress and wellbeing have long been a focus in the workplace, and project teams – often working under the pressure of deadlines and development challenges – can be particularly vulnerable. But under the prolonged cloud of COVID-19, the visibility of overwork (and the options to stop it happening) has faded.

For another Reddit commenter, overwork had a stark manifestation: “I realised I had a problem when I was staring at my monitor for an hour doing literally nothing except trying to find the willpower to check my inbox.

“I enjoy being passionate about my projects but it’s difficult when you know you’re in a spot where some things need to fail and success is just not possible.”

Blurring of lines
Project consultant Gillian Jones-Williams, whose recent APM blog features some great stress-management approaches, wrote: “The balance to strike is being able to moderate stress levels for optimal performance while avoiding situations that feel unmanageable.”

While this is usually quite easy to gauge when you’re in the office or on-site, remote working makes it much harder to see where that manageability line is crossed – and leaves managers with little opportunity to be proactive if they see it happening.

And many project managers – home-workers generally, in fact – report a blurring of the lines during lockdown, leaving them feeling ‘always on’ and less able to recharge their batteries, even when their actual workload isn’t overwhelming.

Admitting to yourself – and, crucially, your colleagues – when you’re facing burnout, isolation or other lockdown-related issues is a vital first step. And don’t expect to be able to recover instantly. COVID-19 has introduced fresh pressures on everyone, and no one can simply flick a switch to handle additional work or external stress factors.

Boats in the harbour
Good project managers will also be able to recognise when their project team’s workload has escalated. Sometimes a word of advice and reassurance makes all the difference: “A couple of co-workers resigned with no replacements, and my project load was instantly doubled overnight,” another Reddit user wrote. “My boss said, ‘Just try to get the ships into the harbour, doesn’t matter if they’re banged up.’ Best thing I could have heard. I knew then we were on the same page – that I was grossly overloaded – that there would be mess-ups, and he would have my back.”

Being clear about the physical limitations on your capacity is great advice. Sponsors and stakeholders expecting results need to know the details of how they might alleviate burnout, not just that they’re causing it.

Why an open culture is vital
But addressing burnout during this most unusual of years could be a great way to work on long-term development, too. That’s something University of Manchester lecturer and project manager Clara Cheung talked about in the summer edition of Project: “Resilience is not a trait, but a skill that can be learned and developed,” she said. “Like building a muscle, increasing your resilience takes time and intentionality.”

The confidence to speak with line managers, project leaders and HR specialists is a crucial ‘intentional’ first step – and project managers should expect more ‘open doors’ to this kind of issue during a period when all of their colleagues and superiors are also having to handle a global pandemic, unusual working practices and additional stress.

The visibility of workloads on individual project managers will improve over the second half of the year as we start to return to work and fine-tune work-from-home approaches. But while that happens, ensuring organisational and team culture is open to frank discussions about how the whole project team is doing is nothing less than vital.

Listen to the APM Podcast featuring Andrew Higson, founder of mental health charity Black Dog Outdoors, for more insights on managing stress and staying healthy.

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Image: Shutterstock / potatosapiens

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