What is the relationship between managing change, stress and men and women’s mental health in projects?

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If we consider a project to be ‘a unique, transient endeavour undertaken to achieve a desired outcome’ – we can see why projects are inherently stressful.

Projects are unique, so there is no business-as-usual. Project managers manage change, and there is always an element of change you cannot foresee. Projects are also transient, operating over a finite period with a reasonable rate of staff turnover and some instability. They have a desired outcome – usually, strict targets decided many years before delivery, with intense pressure to hold to those targets. 

These are the relatively ‘ordinary’ project stressors, but add in unforeseen issues, incidents, in-project change, decision-making scrutiny, etc, and you can see why mental health is such a big issue.

The topic of mental health raises an interesting contrast between men and women, which we believe is due, in part, to our upbringing and societal culture.

Boys are taught from a young age that crying or ‘being emotional’ is an undesirable trait. They are told to ‘man up’, because ‘boys don’t cry’. They must be strong, so they can look after their mothers, sisters and younger siblings. They are encouraged to internalise their feelings and keep a stiff upper lip.

All of this perpetuates the idea that, to be ‘manly’, there are certain types of emotion men cannot show. This is reinforced in adolescence, where boys who aren’t sporty or ‘one of the lads’ can be socially excluded or picked on. When boys fight, yell and lose their tempers, that is just ‘boys being boys’. Aggressive and confrontational behaviour by male children, adolescents or adults is considered to be acceptable.

By contrast, women are encouraged to express emotions, talk about feelings and let it all out. They can cry freely and lean on friends for emotional support, and grow up feeling that expressing emotion is socially acceptable. More confrontational emotional responses, however, such as shouting, intimidating and fighting – well, they’re just not ‘ladylike’. Unlike men, women are conditioned to become emotive in an unthreatening way.

These differences can be seen in the workplace, particularly when people are asked to perform under stressful conditions. Under stress, men may be more likely to display the basic emotions of anger or fear (fight or flight). They are likely to display one of two extremes – confront or withdraw, shout or clam up, dictate or avoid, and so on. These responses to stress could be seen as a demonstration of the behaviours men have learned while growing up, and which have been reinforced throughout life.

Responses like this may also indicate frustration – by not being encouraged to share feelings and emotions, men may grow up with less emotional intelligence and a stunted vocabulary or range of skills required to express themselves at difficult times. While things are starting to change, in construction projects, a man reacting in an angry or aggressive way in the workplace has typically been seen as acceptable, or at the very least unremarkable. We believe this is an industry blind spot.

While we may think about how aggressive behaviour affects women in the workplace, perhaps we are overlooking the obvious – how does it affect men? And how does accepting this behaviour discourage a male-dominated environment from becoming one that champions good mental health for all?

By accepting aggressive reactions as normal, we are inadvertently excluding men from the mental health awareness, education and support that they may need. We are extending gender-biased societal conditioning further into adulthood, and in so doing, may be dissuading other men from reacting differently or appreciating the need to learn how to.

We know that, for men, bottling up emotions and feelings is one of the primary causes of poor mental health, but we also know that men are less likely to grow up learning the skills they need to express themselves in a healthy way. So what can we do to help?

For employers in construction, it’s time to consider whether new health and well-being initiatives appreciate the differences between men and women. Do companies have a balanced representation of men and women undergoing mental health training? They should think about running initiatives that will appeal to those less likely or less able to share their feelings, and encouraging people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work.

We can think about the times we have reacted angrily or aggressively to a stressful situation at work. Why did we react like that? What could we have done differently? What skills will help us react differently next time? Do we need help developing those skills?

When you experience aggressive behaviour in the workplace, take a moment to think about how the other person might be feeling. Do they need support? Do we need support? By reflecting on real-life situations, we can become more conscious of emotional responses and their impact. We should ask for help when we need it, and be honest about our challenges and stressors without considering it a sign of weakness.

With colleagues, we should try to recognise the symptoms of stress and offer support without judgement.

If you don’t know where to start, why not ask for help?

This article first appeared in Project Autumn 18.

This article was co-authored by Stuart Townley, Transport for London.

Lisa Hogben

Posted by Lisa Hogben on 16th Jan 2019

About the Author

Lisa Hogben is a consultant at the Nichols Group

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