The Ultimate Guide to Coping with Stress in Project Management

by | Sep 2, 2021

Stress. You probably know what it feels like. Your heart rate goes up, your mental focus narrows, your palms become clammy, and your breathing becomes shallow.

This is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. You get this familiar, unwelcome feeling of emotional or physical tension that arises when an event or thought makes you frustrated, angry, or nervous.

Managing stress in project management is very often part and parcel of the job. Biologists say that in short bursts, stress can be helpful because it leads to actions that meet goals. In the past, this could have been escaping from a wild beast. Today, it can mean meeting deadlines and on-time deliveries.

Handling projects, large or small, gives way to many opportunities for stress to arise. For example, there could be a lack of clarity on objectives, a lack of time, or a lack of resources to complete the project expertly. We’re sure you can come up with more reasons. But of course, this stress is detrimental to your mental and emotional well-being as well as your productivity.

Prolonged bouts of stress can be harmful because they can cause burnout and grave health problems, which ultimately shorten your life expectancy. Many people aren’t even aware of their levels of stress because their bodies get used to the high levels of adrenaline. You can spot them fidgeting, checking their phones constantly, being tense all of the time, and not being able to disengage from work, even on weekends.

What Research Says

According to a 2013 study in Malaysia, project managers from several countries, spread across four continents, responded to a stress questionnaire. According to them, these were the factors that caused the most stress at work.

  • Workload: 76.67%
  • Insecure career: 80%
  • Vague scope: 56.67%
  • Internal conflict: 86.67%
  • Limited authority: 83.33%
  • Time pressure: 93.33%

While these stats required in-depth research, you will just have to keep an eye out for any irregularities that you may notice in your health to know how stress is affecting you and when it has gone far enough to need medical and behavioral intervention.

The Warning Signs of Stress

During periods of stress, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in ways that make you feel safe. This inherent instinct is known as “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response. The said chemicals bring about physiological changes, which prepare you to act. It’s a biological hangover going back to when human beings were in the wild, with danger lurking behind every corner.

Because stress affects the body as well as the way we think, it’s helpful to look at the signs of stress in four ways – physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Of course, different people handle stress differently. It’s not a given that a person under pressure will experience all these symptoms to the same degree. Still, it’s helpful to keep these in mind while coping with stress in project management.

  • The physical symptoms of stress include a lack of energy, headaches, an upset stomach, muscle aches, a rapid heartbeat, insomnia, and greater susceptibility to colds and infections. Sometimes, there can also be ringing in the ears, clammy hands and feet, clenched jaw, and a dry mouth with difficulty in swallowing.
  • The cognitive symptoms of stress are those that affect how we think. These are related to incessant worrying, racing thoughts, anxiety, and a lack of focus. Stress can also influence judgment and cause forgetfulness and disorganization.
  • The emotional symptoms of stress include becoming easily agitated or frustrated, feeling overwhelmed, at a loss of control, finding it hard to relax, having low self-esteem, and general feelings of low self-worth.
  • The behavioral symptoms of stress show up in ways such as involuntary changes to appetite and food consumption, avoiding work and responsibility, increased use of stimulants such as alcohol, and nervous tics such as nail-biting and hyperactivity.

Recognizing the Signs of Stress

When it comes to guessing whether a situation at work is making you stressed or not, one helpful method is to think of changes in the way that you react.

For example, if you’ve always been excited about starting work, but suddenly find that you’re uninterested, it could be that you’re stressed about a project or an aspect of it.

If you’re the kind that makes decisions quickly, and you’re now fidgeting and procrastinating, that means this is happening because of a unique pressure brought upon by the current circumstances. As discussed, there are also physical changes. To detect these, you should simply be still and check whether your breathing is more rapid than usual, your heart is beating faster, or whether you’re sweating more than usual. All of these are tell-tale signs of stress in general. But, you can also have some typical ones that are unique to you.

Five Reasons Project Managers Get Stressed

As we saw in the study quoted above, there can be unique ways in which project managers experience stress. The reasons for this are apparent. A project manager’s job is a critical one. They are directly responsible for planning, budgeting, monitoring, and reporting on a project. They are the link between upper management and those who execute the project. They have to make sure the scope is manageable, report on its progress, and then bring it in on time.

Given all of the above, here are five main reasons why project managers are prone to stress.

  1. Timelines – Many factors are considered when projects are planned, and deadlines are assigned. It could often happen that any or all of these factors change overnight. Yet, the deadline stays the same. This can lead to sleepless nights.
  2. Resources – A project manager has a certain number of resources assigned before starting the project. This could be the budget, tools, technology, vendors, and size of the team. Sometimes, after a project has begun, these resources prove to be inadequate. In such cases, hard decisions need to be taken – can the timeline be altered? Can more resources be requested? All of these can cause a great deal of stress.
  3. Responsibility – A project manager is ultimately responsible for the successful completion of a project. Yet, many factors are out of their control. These could be the budget, the senior management’s decisions, the behavior of stakeholders, or more. Stress arises as a consequence of juggling all of these expectations.
  4. Conflict – When teams, vendors, and stakeholders have to work together for a task, it’s not unusual for conflict to arise because of competing objectives. In such cases, the project manager has to handle and defuse such conflict and, at the same time, make sure that the task is on schedule. No wonder fingernails are getting shorter! Read More: Why Conflict Management is Important and How to Accomplish It
  5. Goals – This is a broad category. There could be, for example, a clash between personal goals and company goals. Within the company, there could be competing goals. Sometimes, a specific project’s goals are not well-defined at the start. This can be one of the leading causes of stress for a project manager.

Tips and Tricks for Coping With Stress in Project Management

Now that you know what stress is and what causes it, it’s time to overcome it. Fortunately, there are tried and tested techniques to remain calm in stressful situations.

None of these requires specialized training, but they do need one thing – practice. It’s the habits and reactions, built over a long time, that cause stress. To overcome it, you have to be patient and persistent. Over time, you’ll discover that stress isn’t managing you – you’re managing it.

You can look at approaching it in two ways – personal and organizational. With the first, there are things you can do to reduce and handle the stress you’re currently facing. And with the second, you can try systems and techniques at the workplace so that less stress arises.

  • Personal – Make time to do things that you love
    These are related to activities you can do to put some balance back into your life and to combat the effects of stress. Put on some music and dance. Take your dog for a walk. Get some exercise, either at home or in a gym. Practice your favorite sport. Get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet. Practice deep breathing and meditation. Put your work and your life in perspective. All of these are activities that nourish the body and the mind. They will make you feel a whole lot better.
  • Professional – Make use of technology and project management tools
    Here, it all starts with identifying the sources of stress. For example, if tight deadlines are an issue, you could take this up with senior management and offer solutions. If there is scope creep, perhaps you could look at identifying objectives and laying down exact plans at the start. If the organization and management of a project cause issues, you can look at project management software such as Xebrio. Xebrio is an entire project management ecosystem that systematically tracks all activities right from requirements management tool to the deployment of your product. What project management software does is, it takes the stress of organizing tasks and remembering the little stuff off of your shoulders. It helps your team self manage, and you get greater control over the day-to-day activities as well as the long term ones. Apart from using project management tools and tools that will make your life easier, remember to take short breaks, to spend time with your team, and to cultivate a sense of humor about it all. Shared woes often make for the best jokes.

Pro Tips for Dealing With Stress

These are culled from the book, Tangible Tips for Handling the Endless Stress in Project Management, by Steven Flannes, Ph.D., Principal, Flannes & Associates.

  1. Detach or dissociate – During meetings that are heated or stressful, try to take short breaks and rise above it all mentally. Let your mind wander to more pleasant thoughts or images. Of course, this should be done in a way that work is not affected.
  2. Monitor “what if?” thinking – Very often, stress is caused by regretting better decisions not taken in the past. But the past is history, and it’s how you deal with things in the present that counts. Keep asking yourself – what can I do at this point to make it better?
  3. Develop conflict resolution skills and leverage digital means of communication – When working closely with teams, you often have to handle different temperaments and ways of getting work done. Using conflict resolution techniques such as seeing both sides of the coin, putting yourself into some else’s shoes, and keeping the overall goal in mind can help greatly. Also, the best way to avoid conflict is to ensure that all project communication is transparent and trackable. It is a good idea to invest in team communication and collaboration software or software that can help you manage work remotely so that you can escape the physical space and recuperate from stressful interactions if need be.
  4. Stay away from debate – Very often, to resolve a stressful situation, one begins to argue and discuss specific points of view. Always remember that while you should express yourself, there’s no point in overdoing it. Deliver the message, hear out the others, and then move on with a plan of action.
  5. Look for the paradox – Place things in perspective. This could mean humor or refusing to believe that one stressful situation can derail the whole project. It could mean simply taking a positive point of view that you can handle whatever is going to come up.

Stress Can Have a Good Side Too

So far, we’ve mainly focused on how stress can bring you down, affecting your life and work. However, some research shows that some stress can be beneficial to performance.

In what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, elevated arousal levels can improve performance up to a certain point. However, when arousal becomes excessive, performance and output tend to diminish. What this means for project managers is that a certain amount of anxiety or even nervousness about a project can be a good thing. It serves as a motivating factor. You’re more eager to get to work and to complete it to everyone’s satisfaction.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the levels depend on the complexity or simplicity of the task at hand. Something that is difficult or unfamiliar needs a lower level of arousal. On the other hand, more straightforward projects can require more arousal to increase motivation.

To sum up, if your stress levels are low, this could make you a bit too chilled out. The project can then suffer because of lower enthusiasm and drive. But if your stress levels are too high, this also is detrimental. The trick is to stay in the optimal zone of stimulation, always.

Why Do Some People Thrive Under Stress?

Many studies have pointed out that those with Type A personalities tend to do well under pressure. The traits commonly associated with this type are those of being more outgoing, ambitious, organized, and proactive. They’re also seen as impatient, demanding clarity, pushy, and being workaholics.

Another recent study conducted by the University of Portsmouth and the University of Bath shows that seven qualities help people in stressful situations.

These are:

  • Optimism
  • Being self-motivated
  • Being proactive
  • Enjoying learning
  • Being flexible and resilient to change
  • Being socially competent

You don’t have to have every single one of the traits above. But cultivating more than a few, as well as building a reliable support system, certainly helps.

Stress Isn’t Just About the Individual

In today’s fast-paced and competitive world, it looks like there’s no getting away from some amount of stress. It is, however, imperative to minimize and manage it.

It’s not just a problem for the individual – companies as a whole need to realize that high-stress levels lead to a decline in productivity. Processes and systems ought to be put into place for making the workplace culture less tense.

For project managers, the issue of stress can become more demanding because they not only have to handle it for themselves but also their teams. The techniques laid out above will, in time, help you with this. So, while you start with yourself, keep in mind that to create a healthy and productive environment, everyone’s stress levels need to be manageable. Less stress equals more success.

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