Stress & The Project Manager

Project management is a stressful gig.

For many of us, that’s actually the reason that we took it on—although we would never recognize it that way. What we like is the appeal of the challenge, the variety or the ambiguity of project work. We see it as something that we can ‘sink our teeth into’ and be engaged by. For many of us, the project world is where we choose to work for the simple reason that it doesn’t have the routine and repetitiveness that we associate with a more operational, ‘normal’ job.

We also have varying responses to stress. The thrill-seekers among us embrace it, consciously seeking stimulating situations, perhaps even addicted to the adrenaline that goes with it. Others of us avoid stress at all costs, finding it, to put not too fine a point on it…too stressful. There are those of us that find stress useful – or at least accept that it is unavoidable sometimes–and find that when push comes to shove and a deadline looms, we are able to rise to the challenge. And some of us spend more time being stressed than we realize, unaware of its influence and the effects that it has.

Whichever person we identify with, it’s important to understand the role of the stress response. The entire reason that stress exists as a phenomenon is that evolution has found it a valuable means of helping to keep us alive. When we were out hunting on the savannah, way back in the good old days, it was useful for responding to the appearances of lions, tigers and bears. In fact, the essence of stress is the ‘fight or flight’ triggers that occur in response to threats.

While stress has kept us fighting and fleeing in the face of things that wanted to eat us, the evolutionary downside is that our brains don’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. A rabid resource manager or irrationally irate project sponsor generates exactly the same response in us that a sabre-tooth tiger would have a few millennia ago. The embittered executive is seen as being as much as a threat to our health and well-being as the kitty with the long teeth.

Normally, stress is a short-lived reaction. Our brains go on high-alert, the body produces adrenaline – which kicks in the ‘fight or flight’ response – and either we fight (and win) or we run away. In either instance, the source of the stress goes away and our body returns to its previous happy state. It’s not like we actually lived with the tiger; we killed it for dinner or we ran and hid behind a tree until it went and did something else. Afterwards, we had an enjoyable evening around the fire outside of the cave, slept well and woke up to a brand new day.

The lack of distinction between physical and psychological threats, however, means that in our world of today we don’t just have the tiger in our cubicle with us while we’re at work, we actually take it home in our cars or on the train so that it can keep us company in the evenings, as well. Unlike the stress response that comes and goes in the face of physical threats, threats that are psychological in nature have the potential to endure. When stress continues on, our bodies adapt as we try to cope with the ongoing stress. In doing so, we progressively deplete ourselves. The impacts are several, and are, in the long run, potentially severe: they can include insomnia, eating disorders, high blood pressure and heart attacks. The mechanism that was designed to keep us alive in the wild has the potential to kill us in the work environment that many of us find ourselves in today.

Certainly, there are strategies that we can employ, and there are circumstances that influence the degree to which stress does have an impact. It is believed that there are different responses to stress that are naturally generated by people of different personalities. Some of us are more naturally pre-disposed to responding to stress in a way that is temporary; others can tend to dwell and obsess on negative experiences beyond even the removal of the psychological threat, therefore continuing to sustain the stress beyond what is necessary to deal with the situation.

In all instances, there are strategies and supports available that provide us tools to manage stress, and our response to them. The largest of these is our perception of whether we have the ability to control the situation we find ourselves in. This in itself is closely related to our attitude and outlook, and whether we view things optimistically or pessimistically; optimism contributes to feelings that a solution is in fact possible to a negative situation, which contributes to us continuing to solve the problem and being willing to keep trying new approaches in the face of adversity or failed results.

The resources that we can bring to the table also have an influence on how we deal with and respond to stress. Part of this is our ability to deal with and manage our emotions; not to suppress being angry, afraid or sad (because the suppression becomes a source of stress unto itself) but having the ability to calm ourselves and revert to a calm mental state after these feelings have occurred. As well, our knowledge and preparation in the face of stress (whether its about being prepared for the steering committee meeting or having through potential risk responses in the face of an issue) has a significant influence on the both the degree and likelihood of feeling stressed to begin with.

Lastly, the degree to which we have support and resources to draw on is a significant contributor in managing stress, particularly in a project environment. Knowing that there are people that are willing to help, or to give advice, or even having people that are simply willing to listen, can have a significant influence. Conversely, the more isolated and alone we feel, the greater the impact that stress will have and the greater the likelihood that it takes a longer-term toll on our health and well-being.

Stress is a fundamental part of life, and we are hardwired to experience it in the face of perceived threats. Its presence is a reality in a project environment where, by definition, we experience risk and uncertainty and where politics are in essential part of the project landscape.

The larger question is how we respond in the face of stress. While each of us responds in a different way, our patterns of response are not fixed. We can learn new, more effective strategies to help us more maintain balance and allow us to keep moving forward. We can develop approaches and build up support teams that allow us to manage in the face of stress, or to significantly reduce its impact. Doing so is a choice. It doesn’t have to be a stressful one.

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