managing job stress

You probably know about some of the negative impacts of stress—on your health, on your relationships, on your career. But here’s an angle that few of us speaks about in the world of project management: managing stress so it doesn’t have a negative outcome on your project.

When project leaders are stressed and their teams are as well—and that stress isn’t managed or contained—it can result in a calamity of poor judgments, impulsive decision making, lower quality work, bad morale, the list goes on. But any one of these fall outs from stress can make a mark on a project, and leave behind a bad experience for everyone involved, as well as a poorly executed project.

We’ve all been there—stressed to the gills, and unable to find a way to come off the mountain of anxiety.

Why does stress happen, and why is it so hard to let go of?

Well first, a few things about stress. The human body recognizes stress on both negative and positive levels according to “Job Stress: Finding the Right Amount of Job Stress For You,” by Jim Porter. Managing stress then becomes finding the right balance of negative and positive stress in your life.

Some stressors that are universal for project teams include:

  • Micromanagement
  • Ill-defined and even technically unfeasible requirements
  • Inadequate training
  • Too much overtime
  • Information silos
  • Coworker and departmental level disputes

Porter points out in his article that European companies take it upon themselves to manage employee stress. In the U.S., it’s on the worker’s shoulders to solve their stress.

Here’s what I say: If stress management is incumbent on the worker, then project managers and leads should make their responsibility to use tools and processes to help their team manage stress as effectively as possible—because it will ultimately put them in a better position to deliver at project deadline time.

Find the stress sweet spot for your team

A job with too much stress leads to burnout; a job with no stress can be mind-numbingly boring. A key takeaway from Porter’s blog post is the Yerkes-Dodson optimal performance curve. It’s a graph, and it shows how, as your levels of stress or arousal increases, your productivity increases.

job stress curve
The Yerkes-Dodson optimal performance curve. From StressStop.com

Everybody has their limits. When I hit my stress limit, I feel overwhelmed, cranky, and negative. But my line is different from someone else’s.

What is positive stress?

The psychological community refers to positive stress as Eustress. It gives you that extra burst of adrenaline to meet deadlines and accomplish goals. Eustress helps with motivation, mental alertness and efficiency. For instance, eustress for me is a project deadline. In fact, I could feel the eustress as the deadline for this article approached. Other times I feel eustress include getting a new project assignment and resolving a project issue that was blocking my progress.

What is negative stress?

Negative stress or distress is what we most identify with as stress. Distress has negative implications that include anxiety, decreased productivity, and physical and mental problems. Those with medical conditions like thyroid issues can aggravate their existing health conditions.  Negative stress for me is a soft deadline because I live in a world of conflicting priorities making it easy for me to let soft deadlines slip down my task list only to haunt me at a later date.

Here are some strategies you can use as a project manager to help your team manage stress:

Recognize the signs of stress in your project team members

Project managers need to be aware of the signs of stress in their team members. The greatest tool I’ve ever seen for managing project team stress is open lines of communications and collaboration amongst the team. Doubly so, if you manage remote team members. Use team meetings, one-on-ones, team activities and other opportunities for team members to communicate the stress they might be facing on their projects. Do what you can within the bounds of your corporate culture to ensure that talking about stress is no longer a taboo.

Encourage well-being practices

Rich Fernandez in his Harvard Business Review article entitled “Help Your Team Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Burnout” advises offering personal development tools like resilience training. The article also advocates for encouraging your team to take time to exercise and pursue their own form of renewal activities. He gave additional examples including walking meetings and building in buffer time into deliverable schedules for work flexibility.

Be a working project manager and democratize project information

A project manager needs to be a contributing member of their project team, not just a visitor from the project management office (PMO). Joe Knight, Roger Thomas and Brad Angus in their HBR article entitled “Project Managers Should Share Their Stress” encourage project managers to stop holding their cards so close to their chest. It’s better to drop even a well-intentioned I’m-in-control approach.

With more organizations moving to Agile development, DevOps, and more cross-functional teams, the era of the command-and-control PMO is coming to an end for many organizations. Team members can now get a bigger stake in the project direction.

Now, project managers can focus on more strategic tasks related to the project. Such changes can mean a win for the project and the client because iterative development gives engineers feedback throughout the development cycle versus doing so at the very end. Developers also gain a direct channel to update their status throughout the project to an audience that includes their project manager and team. This immediate feedback channel can be stress relieving for some developers. While such changes might be stressful at first, once implemented they can remove a lot of stress around fear of the unknown for team members.

Using tools to manage stress

Looking back over the stress in my professional and personal lives, disorganization is a reoccurring theme behind my negative stress. Often it came from a disorganized and reactive manager or client. Sometimes the negative stress came because of my messy office.

Over time, I began to use SaaS applications and online tools to cope with some of the professional stress I face as a contractor. I keep my working project files up in the cloud, where I can access those files anytime, any place. I’ve broken down my processes for particular reoccurring projects and keep them as checklists in another SaaS application.

Along the way, I’ve helped centralize project management and collaboration using Wikis and other cloud platforms to keep project information centralized and accessible to the team. I’ve also helped some organizations move from desktop project management applications to cloud-based project management platforms giving teams the opportunity to centralize and democratize project information for project managers, developers, and stakeholders alike.

For teams who stress out over the uncertainties of projects—status, incoming changes, priorities, etc.—online project management tools can offer the insight and collaboration needed to allay some of those fears. SaaS platforms can democratize project schedules and related information giving team members and stakeholders the view they need (and can understand) over project information.

Stress, your project team and you

As a project manager the better you know how to manage and channel stress for your team. There’s no one-size-fits-all stress management approach for project teams. It’s going to about better communications, collaboration, and putting tools in place to manage your stress and the stress of your team members.

It’s possible that you could manage your and your team’s stress more effectively through your PM process or tool. To see if your current system is working for you, take the Project Management Health Diagnostic. It’s a 9-question multiple-choice quiz that will show you how to get on a good track!

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The Project Manager’s Guide to Managing Job Stress was last modified: December 14th, 2016 by Will Kelly