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Turn your PMO into a PWO – Project Wellbeing Office

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Initiatives such as Mind and Rethink’s Time to Talk have opened up the mental health debate and made it more acceptable to converse about something that compared to the sparkling flow of words that surround physical health in our offices, was hushed and taciturn in contrast.  Yet there is still a long way to go before we reach parity of esteem between mental and physical health, despite the fact that we all have both.  Work places have an important responsibility to help the mental health and wellbeing movement gain further ground, and given the facts, it is very much in the self-interest of businesses to do so. 

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 6.8 people experience a mental health problem in the workplace and 12.7% of all sickness, absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.  Indeed, their research suggests with better mental health support, UK businesses can save up to a staggering £8billion per year.   Yet the situation is actually worse than these statistics belie, given the stigma still attached to mental health, when presenteeism is brought into the equation – that is, people are more likely to come into work when mentally sick than physically sick, but with employee performance dropping. 

The pressures (and the importance of providing the right support to match) are of course particularly marked in project management, an inherently stressful industry.  I (Patrick) was asked what the most important thing was in project management early in my career, and the answer from my then manager came back, ‘just remember the buck stops with you!’.  This accountability and pressure for the project to succeed is actually something that affects the whole project team and is made more challenging by a cadre of other stress inducing factors such as demanding timescales; limited resources; the innovative nature of projects meaning change is being brought about more unpredictably than business as usual; information overload from complex, multi-stream projects; oh yes, and amongst many other areas, there’s also matrix working often thrown into the equation (where the project team are managing complex networks of relationships where they are essentially sharing the resources available and don’t have full control of them, despite retaining the accountability for the success or failure of the project.).  Cup of tea and a pit stop anyone?

The Wellness of Project Professionals, which we would encourage you to read.  The research surveys project professionals and then compares this against a survey of the general working population. The findings make stark reading.  For example, project professionals scored 65% on resilience against the general working population scoring 77%.  On productivity, project professionals scored 66% versus 77% for the norm group.  In terms of stress inducing areas, the survey covered a number of areas such as resources and communication, control, balanced workload, job security and change, work relationships and job conditions: in all these key areas, against the norm group, the survey of project professionals showed they were at high risk or approaching high risk levels.

Perhaps the best way to view the research, however, is as a collective call to action to address this situation, and it is interesting to note that one of the proposed solutions in the APM research to improve the wellbeing of project professionals is to implement a PMO!  Fortunately, PMOs, with their bird’s eye view of the project landscape in an organisation and intelligence gathering capability are well placed to offer support, spot the early warning signs and help create a PWO or Project Wellbeing Office – indeed they should, given the staggering costs of staff sickness discussed previously. 

One of the first things the PMO can do is hold up a mirror to its own practices and interactions with project teams across the organisation.  Are there any practices you can change to make the life of projects easier or more supported?  For example, PMO’s often create their own drumbeat and cycles of governance, reporting and meetings – every week/fortnight/month, yet this drumbeat can if taken too far, feel like a relentless, constant pressure to feed the PMO while juggling the challenges of ongoing delivery.  I’m not for a second suggesting throwing out the PMO play book, but perhaps there is flexibility, creativity and change (which can be as good as a rest) that can be built into the PMO cycles established.  I have, for example, on occasion replaced the need for a report with a face to face chat or attendance at a project steering group, which can indeed sometimes elicit much more useful insight particularly when teams are stressed and, guarded in their report writing.  I’ve also successfully played around with reporting timelines, disrupting the drumbeat and giving projects an extra few weeks than usual when it’s clear projects are facing other pressures and need a rest.  To paraphrase the Gandhi inspired quote, PMOs should be the change they want to see in the world, shining a light first on their own practices. 

Secondly, whilst PMOs cannot be expected to be experts in different mental health conditions, they can build an awareness of mental health and enhancing wellbeing, sign posting to further sources of support for staff. – at least one member of every PMO, if not everyone who is outward facing into the project management community, should become qualified Mental Health First Aiders.  The work to enlighten staff need not be done alone either.  Have you considered organising a talk for your projects on how staff can look after their mental health and wellbeing?  Doing so shows you are taking an interest in the health of staff and might generate some brownie points in and of itself, whilst connecting to speakers helps bring in valuable expertise.  Mental health expertise can be generated over time and help make the PMO a useful hub of information, well placed to sign post and support staff in reaching valuable further avenues of mental health support. 

Third, PMOs should closely examine their intelligence gathering systems to spot the early warning signs of poor mental health.  That red traffic light report rating, drop in reaching KPIs,  or even a lengthier report than usual (perhaps reflecting changed project scope and more to report on) could all be signs the minds of project staff need looking at.  Don’t just ask what the business intelligence tells you about the project, ask what the data tells you about the people running the project, and intervene accordingly.  You can also look for warning signs in project meetings – for example, individuals being atypically irritable or argumentative.

Fourth, build a community of support and practice.  Bringing Project Managers and teams together allows them not only to share expertise, but also offload about stressful project work and find solutions to common problems.  A problem shared is a problem halved or so the adage goes and when you remove the source of stress by finding a group solution to a difficult project situation, you make the people better too.  These can be quite informal gatherings, with coffee and doughnuts, yet their power to heal mental wounds and support healthy minds should not be underestimated.  And run these really effectively, and an added bonus is the PMO becomes something projects begin craving rather than something they feel they have to comply with.  

Fifth, the PMO can play a valuable proactive, troubleshooting role, walking around and connecting to PMs and delivery teams.  Walk and talk rounds, where you ask how different individuals days are going can make a huge difference – people can, off the back of them, feel recognised and supported.  It’s also a valuable way of generating further insight into what’s going on, including the mental health of staff.  These walk and talk rounds can also be twinned with proactive offers of help to take on some work to move the project forward and lighten the load on PMs and delivery teams.  Updating a risk register, chairing a difficult meeting that’s coming up, jointly thinking through creative solutions to a difficult project problem, amongst many other areas, can help ensure PMOs are at the heart of facilitating powerful change – both for the project, and for the health of its staff. 

A final thought is that it’s worth getting people together with flip chart paper and pens and mapping out the sources of stress.  People, situation and events are a good way to frame a number of reasons for stress.  For example, an event.  Capital spend / time challenges – part way through the financial year the company decides to cut back and project teams have to respond “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” so their project continues to deliver despite the reduced time/funding.  An example from the people category could be an unsympathetic / ineffective sponsor who does not support or protect the project team.  A creative session like this will help highlight valuable information that affects the mental health of project staff and enable appropriate action to be taken.  As well as these categories your session might also consider internal sources of stress – i.e. thought processes.  A good example would be someone’s reluctance declare amber or red for fear of being branded a failure.  Taking this step, along with the others mentioned in this article can help us all make the mental health of project staff the important priority it needs to be and help banish those devilled words this article started with – ‘hushed’ and ‘taciturn’, which are unfortunately all still too common descriptions for how many businesses deal with mental health.  


Patrick Scott
APM PMO SIG committee member



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