14 January, 2019

How to Spot and Deal with Stress in Your Team

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.

PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

We’ll look at how to:

  1. Spot the signs of stress in individual team members
  2. Spot the signs of stress in your team, as a whole
  3. Deal with the causes of project-related stress
  4. Help idividuals deal with their stess levels
Spot Stress in Individuals

Spot the Signs of Stress in Individuals

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…

I’ll wait…

Our list of the signs of stress in individuals

  1. Time Keeping

    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

  2. Appearance

    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?

  3. Mood

    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?

  4. Fatigue and Tiredness

    Have you noticed that they seem tired a lot of the time?
    Do simple tasks seem to take more effort from them?

  5. Weight loss – or gain

    Significant changes in their weight can indicate that stress is causing them to over- or under-eat.

  6. Over-use of Stimulants

    This may be illicit drugs, but rarely. But are they over-using stimulants like caffeine (too much coffee), alcohol, nicotine (cigarettes), or sugar (sweets)?

  7. Mistakes and Forgetfulness

    Poor concentration is a classic sign of stress.
    Are you noticing errors, omissions, missed deadlines, or indecision?

  8. Agitated Resting State

    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.

  9. Posture

    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.

  10. Recurrent Illnesses

    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?

Spot Stress in Your Team

Spot the Signs of Stress in Your Team

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?

I’ll wait…

Our list of the signs that your team is suffering from stress

  1. Absence Levels

    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.

  2. Staff Turnover

    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.

  3. Low Productivity

    Are there lots of people busy, but very little seems to be achieved? That’s a sign that something is not right.

  4. Poor Atmosphere

    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.

  5. Gossip and Rumour-mongering

    As soon as morale drops, you’ll find people gossiping and, worse still, spreading toxic rumors.

  6. Relationships Fraying

    Have you noticed petty squabbles and new grudges?
    As soon as a team starts feeling stress, relationsips come under pressure. They can deteriorate quickly from great to awful almost overnight.

  7. Complaints

    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.

  8. Missed Deadlines

    Under stress, we don’t prioritize well, and we don’t work in an efficient way. So is your team missing deadlines and milestones?

  9. Sick Ward

    Does your office feel more like a minor injuries unit or sick-ward, than it does a place of work? If so, look out!

  10. Meeting Dynamics

    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

Click here for your FREE Spotting the Signs of Stress Checklist

How to Deal with the Causes of Project-related Stress

To deal with the causes of project stress in your team, you must first identify them. Typical causes of project stress include;

  • Too much work – or the perception that there is too much work
  • Not feeling able to do the work because it is either too difficult, or the resources they need are not available
  • Feeling unsupported in their work
  • Too many looming deadlines. Deadlines can be a bad thing, as the video below explains…
  • A feeling of being pressured by stakeholders, team leaders or colleagues, or even by you (the project manager)
  • Worse, they my feel they are receivinng disrespectful or even bullying treatment

Stress and Control

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:

  • less work
  • easier work
  • a bit of support
  • fewer deadlines
  • a barrier between the team and other people

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.'

How to Create a Sense of Control for Your Team

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 ofr too much. That’s not giving them control, it’s taking it for yourself.

How to Help Individuals Deal with their Stress Levels

How to Spot and deal with Stress in Your Team

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.

Controlling their Use fo Time

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.

Controling their Work Environment

Sometimes, we need to take control of our physical environment. Now, I know some workplaces allow very minimal customization of our workspace, but encouraged stressed team members to do as much as the organization will allow.

As a minimum, give them time to tidy and organize. It’s amazing you much better we feel when we get our space working efficiently for us.

Controlling their Workplace values

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.

Examples of Out-dated Workplace Values

  • Avoiding Risk – team members don’t want to make mistakes. But what if you were to reassure them that you value innovation and creativity more?
  • Being Perfect – some colleagues set unreachable standards for themselves. So be clear what the right standards are for each deliverable. That way they will know when to stop.
  • Working Hard – they think they should work hard. And I’m sure you do too. But why not spell out how hard, and emphasise that its results you are most interested in: not effort.
  • Feeling Guilty – how stressful is it carrying around guilt for a mistake? Encourage people to be open about their mistakes and exchange ready forgiveness for a frank discussion about lessons learned.

Controlling their Emotional Response to Stress

Stress can cause us to go inside ourselves. It can trigger unwanted emotions. And we can exacerbate this by telling oursleves:

  • It’s my own fault
  • I’m rubbish
  • It always goes wrong for me
  • Whatever I do, it’ll ever get better

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:

  • great skills
  • resourcefulness
  • your support
  • the support of their colleagues

Help them by pointing out everything that has gone well and encourage them to recognize all of their successes.

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 wth senior colleagues. Best of all, nothing beats a hand-written thank-you note.

Controlling their Physical Response to Stress

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 repsonse to stress and building resilience are:

  1. Good Fuel – encouraging people to eat and drink wisely. You can help your team by making fresh fruit available, and encouraging proper lunch breaks
  2. Good Energy – exercise has two positive effects. It dispels stress, and builds stamina with which to better handle pressure. Encourage exercise in individuals, and consider options for team activities that will help people to get exercise in ways they would enjoy.
  3. Good Rest – you cannot enforce rest and relaxation – much less, sleep – on your stressed team. But you can encourage people to leave the workplace and get a good break. After a certain amount of time working long hours, those long hours are rarely productive.
  4. Good Relationships – you can encourage people to look after and make use of their private relationships, but no more. However, we spend more of our waking hours with our work colleagues than we do with our loved ones. So look for opportunities to let your team members strengthen their working relationships.
Building Personal Resilience
Building Personal Resilience

How to Manage Stress

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.

Now in it’s second edition, you can buy How to Manage Stress (previously, Brilliant Stress Management) from most booksellers. It is even available in Polish, Spanish, French, Albanian, and Chinese.

Buy from Amazon.com

Buy from Amazon.co.uk

What are your thoughts on how to spot and deal with stress in your team

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas, questions, and comments. Leave them below, and I’ll respond to any comments you make.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 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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