Chained to the desk?




Step away from the computer. Put down the mobile. It's time to get a life—without losing your job.


does daring to have a personal life mean committing career suicide? It's the age-old question, but it's taking on a whole new level in today's “stop-your-whining, we-need-it-done-now” project world. These days, it's not so much about getting ahead. It's about avoiding the ax. The overriding philosophy seems to be that if you aren't willing to put in the hours, the company is more than happy to find someone who will.

Between the late nights and weekend hours, it seems like the cycle never ends.

“My research shows that project-based employees move from project to project, often without respite,” says Helen Lingard, PhD, professor of property construction and project management at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, Melbourne, Australia.

Over the long haul, such a cycle “contributes to employee burnout, a chronic syndrome of emotional exhaustion, cynicism about work and a sense of diminished personal efficacy,” says Dr. Lingard, who coauthored Managing the Work-Life Balance in Construction [Taylor & Francis, 2009]. Burnout is also linked to poor physical health and substance and alcohol abuse, she adds.

It's not healthy for project managers, their teams—or their projects.

“If you are working more than 60 hours a week, you are working for nothing,” says Richard Polak, president and CEO of Los Angeles, California, USA-based IBIS Advisors Co., a human resources consulting and training company. “Project managers use their minds. They're risking their judgment skills if they're working 60 hours a week.”

That's not all they're risking, though. Their very lives can be at stake.

Nick Woodeson, a former program director at Unisys and IT director at Brittania Data Management, has witnessed firsthand the toll that stress can take.

Hanging in the Balance

The team on the AU$70 million Wivenhoe Dam upgrade project in Queensland, Australia was clocking in grueling six-day workweeks.

Sensing burnout, the project managers interviewed team members about their needs and concerns, and came up with a plan to have people put in slightly longer hours but take Saturdays off.

It worked. In a post-implementation survey, employees said their work-life balance had measurably improved, says one of the study's authors, Helen Lingard, PhD, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, Melbourne, Australia.

And the stakeholders fared just fine, too: The project was completed six months ahead of schedule and 10 percent below budget.

“I've seen one or two project managers in their 50s get heart attacks and need to take time off work as a result, or suffer from a complete burnout, where they need to take six months off and change careers,” says Mr. Woodeson. He's now author of a work-life balance blog and owner of Essential Business Skills, a management training and coaching firm in London, England.

No one wants to get to that point and no one has to, even in this climate. There are ways to meet project deadlines and still leave work on time—and maybe even sneak in a vacation or two—without it being held against you:

1 Learn to let go. Project managers are born control freaks, says Shivakumar Sundaram, PMP, global head of IT training at Syntel, an IT company in Pune, India.

But that needs to change if you want any shot at work-life balance.

“I don't take all the load on my shoulders,” Mr. Sundaram says. “I have learned to say ‘no’ if it affects my schedules. I trust my colleagues and I delegate. I don't do their fishing, but I teach them how to fish.”

Mr. Woodeson shares that sentiment.

“If the project manager thinks they're going to know everything, that's a sure-fire way to stress. I came from a tech background and I wanted to be into everything at the beginning of my project management career. I then realized I couldn't do that and manage the project—I'd be working 14 hours a day,” he says. “I decided I would get better results by leading and building a good team. Know the strengths of the individuals and delegate.”


imgTIP Give yourself a 60-minute break. “You don't always need an extended vacation to unwind,” says Shivakumar Sundaram, PMP, Syntel, Pune, India. “Instead, set aside an hour each day to enjoy something completely unrelated to work—an outing, a short walk, a workout, or a chapter or two in a book. It's quality, not quantity.”

2 Build in buffers and backups. “Even in a well-planned and thought-through project, it is usual to add around 20 percent to 25 percent of contingency time,” Mr. Woodeson says.

If you think that sounds downright impossible, you're not alone. Mr. Woodeson says he often meets with project managers pressured by stakeholders to avoid too much of a cushion. But he insists it must be done. “It's about risk management, anticipating tomorrow's problem today,” he says.

3 Insist that the workday actually end. Project managers must maintain the right to cut out unnecessary conference calls, especially ones that require team members in different time zones to dial in during the middle of the night.

“Sometimes it's unavoidable to have out-of-hours conference calls, but if you keep arranging them, you're impacting your team members’ work-life balance,” Mr. Woodeson says. “The always-online mentality increases stress and becomes addictive.”

It may not be a popular decision, but learn to say no to being wired around the clock.

“Too many companies believe having people on call 24 hours a day is a good thing,” particularly if they're the ones paying for the laptops or smart-phones, Mr. Woodeson says.

Although project managers can't change a company policy that expects employees to be available 24/7, they can control the culture of their teams and discourage after-hours communications. Lead by example and limit off-hours phone calls, texts or e-mails to only when absolutely necessary.

4 Build in some flexibility. Project managers can request leniency in how team members get the job done. Some might opt to work from home two days a week, or work six shorter days straight.

“It's up to team members to decide how they can best meet their work objectives,” says Mr. Woodeson. “It's a matter of giving a choice and empowerment to employees to manage their own time.”

5 When all else fails, shift gears. Don't feel that you need to stay on the traditional career trajectory.

“What fits for you now might not fit for you in later life—for example, when you have a young family or are approaching retirement,” Dr. Lingard says.

You may even have an ally in your company. Some “enlightened” organizations are trying to help project managers achieve a more satisfactory work-life balance, she says, by providing them with a break between projects and enabling them to rest and recharge before starting on another intense phase of work.

“Some companies know these people are valued and want to retain their skills, and they will negotiate with them what works for them at that time,” Dr. Lingard says.


Of course, many organziations are simply driven by the bottom line—often at the expense of work-life balance.

Realizing that philosophy could come back to bite them, some companies are changing their tune.

It's a lot easier to persuade people to put in those extra hours with a little “bribery” of sorts, offering more than just basics like retirement funds, paid annual leave and sick days.

“To attract and retain top project managers, companies need to offer benefits beyond the statutory requirements,” Mr. Polak says.

Seeing competitors implement better working policies and become the employer of choice has spurred some construction companies to take action, for example.

Dr. Lingard recently worked on an initiative to improve work-life balance for the team implementing an AU$1.39 billion project to upgrade West Gate Freeway, one of Victoria, Australia's busiest road networks. The project began in late 2007 and is set to finish ahead of schedule by mid-year.

Escape Plan

Culture—both country and company—plays a huge role in how many hours team members are expected to put in.

Korea, for instance, is known for its long workdays, and putting in time on Saturdays is often the norm. And the United States has the dubious distinction as the only developed nation that doesn't require employers to provide paid leave.

On the other hand, some European countries are famous for their generous vacation policies. Workers in France are entitled to 30 days of annual leave, while those in Finland, Norway and Sweden each get 25.

As a project manager, how do you ensure your project is completed on time while allowing you and your team members to take your entitled vacations?

When planning schedules, project managers should consider vacation allowances and avoid having anyone out of the office around critical milestones, says Nick Woodeson, Essential Business Skills, London, England.

Also be aware of holidays—including those that may not be part of your own culture—and then plan for contingencies.

Some companies build in backups.

“In Asia, India and China, for example, I've seen many project organizations with a deputy project manager, and I've started to see this in Europe as well,” Mr. Woodeson says.

Even without a backup, believe it or not, the world won't end if you're out for a few days.

“Well-structured project teams can cope with the short-term absence of the project manager,” he says. “In larger projects, this can actually be easier because there is a project management team around the project manager, including a project management office and managers of different sub-projects.”

Of course, project managers heading smaller initiatives have a much more difficult time taking vacation without affecting a project's momentum.

“The project manager has to plan his or her leave at a time that will have the least impact to the ultimate success of the project,” Mr. Woodeson says.

If being completely out of the picture just isn't an option, project managers should think about limiting their availability. He advises setting up a specific time during the day for taking calls as a start.

To help ensure teams don't get burnt out by then, upper management offered access to health assessments, smoking-cessation programs, paid gym memberships, and self-development courses that included financial planning, time management and stress management.

Project managers also monitor their teams for people working excessive hours—and the reasons why.

“Sometimes it was just a short-term requirement to complete a task on time,” says Dr. Lingard. “When this was the case, employees were given a few days off to rest, recover and spend time with their families. When the problem was not temporary, additional resources were provided to help the employee.”

Work-life balance doesn't have to be one of those things you only read about in business books. It can be done. Go ahead and shrug off those chains. PM




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