Projects can be stressful. And one of your responsibilities, as a Project Manager, is to spot and deal with stress in your team.
So, in this article, I want to set you up with the basic knowledge you need to do this.
We’ll look at how to:
I’m sure you have seen this somewhere in your career, so you can probably generate your own list of the signs of stress. Maybe do this before you look at our list of examples below…
Our list of the signs of stress in individuals
Is this person arriving at work later than usual?
Or are they consistently getting in earlier than they did?
Are they leaving earlier… or later
Has their appearance changed for the worse?
Are there signs that their self-care is suffering or they are giving less attention to their dress or grooming?
Are you seeing signs of mood swings, irritability, or tension?
Do they get more easily frustrated?
Or do they seem down for a lot of the time?
Have you noticed that they seem tired a lot of the time?
Do simple tasks seem to take more effort from them?
Significant changes in their weight can indicate that stress is causing them to over- or under-eat.
This may be illicit drugs, but rarely. But are they over-using stimulants like caffeine (too much coffee), alcohol, nicotine (cigarettes), or sugar (sweets)?
Poor concentration is a classic sign of stress.
Are you noticing errors, omissions, missed deadlines, or indecision?
Stressed people find it hard to relax. At extremes, this can manifest as heart palpitations, rapid breathing, and perspiration. These can also be early signs of serious medical conditions.
When we get stressed, one of the first things to go is our posture.
Do they look hunched, slumped, or move with a more shuffling gait than usual?
Or do they look tense and stiff, as if they are constantly braced for some form of blow?
Worse still is a combination of hunched and tense.
Stress reduced our ability to fight off even the lightest infections. So, do they seem overly susceptible to coughs and colds, for example?
And, carrying tension and poor diet can also lead to other illnesses, which often start with headaches.
Do you see them constantly popping over-the-counter pills and remedies?
Typically, stress strikes individuals one at a time. But in a highly stressful environment, stress can become endemic. You may find a significant number of people are suffering. Now you could say that your whole team is stressed.
Once again, before you look at our list, why don’t you think about the signs you might expect to notice?
Our list of the signs that your team is suffering from stress
Has the level of absences started to increase?
There may be a good reason on a case-by-case basis. But the wider picture may be more sinister.
Have people started leaving your project or, indeed, your organization? There is a normal level of healthy turnover in any staff group. But, once it increases too much, that’s a sign that there is something wrong.
Are there lots of people busy, but very little seems to be achieved? That’s a sign that something is not right.
It’s hard to define, but you know it when you experience it.
Is there something wrong with the mood of your team? Maybe constant anger, frustration, moaning, or just lacking in motivation? It’s time to address morale, but not just with some Spot Stress in Your Team speech.
As soon as morale drops, you’ll find people gossiping and, worse still, spreading toxic
Have you noticed petty squabbles and new grudges?
As soon as a team starts feeling stress,
I don’t mean team members complaining – although that does happen.
Have you started to receive complaints about team members? Maybe from within your organization (or even your team), or perhaps from outside. The mistakes people make, and the emotions that are starting to take hold manifest in poor attitudes, poor service, and poor work.
Under stress, we don’t prioritize well, and we don’t work in an efficient way. So is your team missing deadlines and milestones?
Does your office feel more like a minor injuries unit or sick-ward, than it does a place of work? If so, look out!
A don’t care attitude is typical of a stressed team. So, do you notice fewer contributions at team meetings?
and, when you get contributions, are too many of them combative and unnecessarily confrontational? Another sign of stress is a tendency to fight over every detail.
The two lists of signs of stress form one of our Project Management Checklists.
This is a set of 65 checklists you can use to take the stress out of getting your project management right
To deal with the causes of project stress in your team, you must first identify them. Typical causes of project stress include;
Ultimately, all stress arises because we do not feel that we have sufficient control in a part of our lives. So, the solution is simple: restore a sense of control to your team.
It would be easy to say the answers to the causes above are, for example:
But you cannot always make these happen. These are easy answers that new project managers may try, by taking everything upon themselves.
Guess what… They don’t often work, and they do create the risk that you, the project manager, will burn-out instead.
By the way, do take a look at our companion article: 'Resilience for Project Managers: How to Build it and Regain it.'
Actually, a sense of control is not the thing. You need to give them more control. Facilitate a conversation about the issues that are troubling them and causing them stress. Invite them to discuss how to reduce the stress levels and where they can take control.
Listen to their ideas and be respectful of all of them. You may not be able to grant your team full control, but allow them to implement as many of their ideas as possible. Give them the support they need, but resist the urge to take responsibility
Another way to reduce the stress in your team is by helping individuals cope with their own stress responses. And this is also about supporting them in finding ways to take back more control of their work.
There are five points of control you can help them with.
Good personal time management is essential in the fast-moving environment of a project.
Often the sheer amount of work we all have to do can easily leave some team members feeling overwhelmed. So, you may want to review our article on What to Do if You are Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project. You may even want to refer them to that article.
For me, though, the key to good time management is putting your work into discrete (small) chunks. This gives a constant sense of achievement. Good personal time management, it turns out, uses the same principles as good project management: breaking the work down, and milestones.
I could write a lot about Personal time Management for Project Managers. But, I already have, in my earlier article: ‘Personal Time Management for Project Managers‘ Do take a look.
Sometimes, we need to take control of our physical environment. Now, I know some workplaces allow very minimal customization of our
As a minimum, give them time to tidy and organize. It’s amazing you much better we feel when we get
A lot of stress in your team members can arise because there is a mismatch between their deep personal values, and what you expect of them in the workplace. Or, even more common, is a mismatch between those values, and what they think you or the organization expect from them.
Here are some examples where you can discuss possible changes with them.
Stress can cause us to go inside ourselves. It can trigger unwanted emotions. And we can exacerbate this by telling
Encourage your stressed team members to focus on the positives and, when they talk to themselves in their own head, to remind themselves that they have:
Help them by pointing out everything that has gone well and
A great response to stress in your team is to increase the amount of acknowledgement of successes and recognition of contributions that you give. You can do this on a one-on-one basis, day-to-day, in team meetings, and by noting achievements and effort when speaking
The last point of control for your team members is physical. You can get an amazing boost in productivity when you have stress in your team, by simply taking a break for the whole team and doing something nice as a group. It can feel like an extravagance when deadlines are pressing, but if the stress is impacting effectiveness, this can be your best response.
The four keys to managing your physical
Stress Management is a topic I feel very strongly about. And, strangely, although I have written several books about Project Management, managing stress is the topic of my best-selling book.
Maybe this is because it got name-checked early on by super-model Naomi Campbell, or perhaps it just touched a nerve. Either way, it’s a book I am very proud of. And I learned what I have about controlling your stress as a result of my experiences as a project manager.
As always, I’d love to hear your ideas, questions, and comments. Leave them below, and I’ll respond to any comments you make.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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