Project Management Institute

Stretched thin



There are no two ways about it: Project management is stressful. But clearly there is a point at which it becomes too much—when the swirling mass of project details, deliverables and deadlines simply becomes overwhelming.

Part of it is just the nature of the beast. And project managers better learn to deal with it. They are, after all, the ones tasked with all the problems and grievances that occur when diverse contributors and departments try to work together.

Still, there are some ways project managers and the organizations they work for can avert a complete meltdown.


Stress is no stranger to Beatrice Kessler. As an IT project manager at Credit Suisse, Zurich, Switzerland, she takes over projects as they reach a critical stage of implementation. In one case, she found there was disagreement over the architecture of the solution being developed, resulting in a slowdown of the project.

Even away from the office, she couldn't keep her mind off the situation. “I knew I was stressed because I met some friends on the weekend and I was still thinking about that problem,” she says. “My friends looked at me like I was an alien and I realized I had to calm down.”

Stress Test

Top 6 Signs You're Headed for Burnout

1 Inability to “switch off” work problems or issues

2 Disturbed sleep patterns

3 Lack of pleasure in leisure activities outside work

4 Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

5 Increased tendency to get angry quickly or resort to aggression

6 Lack of energy

As part of her “de-stressing” regime, she prioritizes everything at work—from e-mails to specific tasks—and assesses what needs to be done next and what can be delegated.

And if a meeting doesn't go quite as planned, she gives herself time to wind down. That's usually accomplished by walking around the Credit Suisse building, which, with around 7,000 employees and 12 floors, provides plenty of space for her to wander around and clear her head.

At home, she meditates and has outside interests, including diving and golf, that let her leave all the work talk at the office.

“You need to set your own rules and live by them,” Ms. Kessler explains. “If something annoys you there is only one question: Can you change it? If you can, then do it. If not, then don't think about it.”

Sometimes you just have to let it go.


It helps if project managers can learn to be self-aware—to spot the signs that say they're on edge.

“The problem with stress is that you become acclimatized to it,” explains Stephen Simister, Ph.D., head of the project management master's of business administration program at Henley Management College, Henley-on-Thames, England. “You don't realize the stress you are carrying with you until you find it takes five days for you to unwind when you go on holiday.”

Dr. Simister recommends project managers keep a journal, taking time to reflect on their working experience and identify when they are at risk of burnout.

“The key to not getting stressed is to do with control,” he says. “But you can't always be in control. The analogy I use is that you might be driving your car according to the rules of the road, but you still get someone tailing you because they don't think you're driving fast enough. That person's actions can still induce stress in you even though the actions you are taking are perfectly reasonable.”

In such instances, being aware of the control you do have and how someone else's actions are making you feel may mean you're better equipped to deal with the situation without letting it affect you adversely. In some cases, it means working around that project sponsor who seems oblivious to the fact that turning in numbers three days late might affect the schedule.

For Dr. Simister, exerting control even extends to ensuring the environment in which you are working is a positive place. “Good chairs, nice surroundings will help you relax more whatever work you are doing,” he says.

And that's where companies can come in to rescue—or at least help out—the frazzled project manager.


Menlo Innovations operates under the philosophy that stress doesn't have to be an entirely negative experience, says Lisamarie Babik, PMP, who works at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA-based IT consulting firm.

The company operates out of a single open-plan room, where everyone is part of the action. Project details and timetables are displayed on the walls with easy color-coding to show how each project is progressing—for better or worse. Regular “show-and-tell” sessions let everyone, including the client, see what has been accomplished so far and what still needs to be done.

“This removes the stress of not knowing how we are doing and replaces it with the much healthier stress of knowing how we are doing,” Ms. Babik says. “Sometimes we are not doing well, but at least we know it.”

And if a piece of code doesn't work or presents a problem, it's written up by a team member and passed to the project manager for revised scheduling. That doesn't mean any late nights, though.

At Menlo, overtime doesn't exist—for anyone. When a new project manager joins Menlo, Ms. Babik asks them how many assignments they can handle. At the first sign of work piling up, the company adjusts the load.

If there's more work to be done than can be accomplished in 40 hours, additional resources are brought in rather than demanding that team members work extra hours. “As we say around here, it's not that there's not enough time, it's that there's too much to do,” Ms. Babik explains.

Proper resource allocation can certainly go a long way to relieving the pressure on a stressed-out project manager frantically trying to finish off a project.

“The organization can help project managers by providing them with the optimum number of projects at a given point of time along with the right composition of the team working with him or her,” says Rakesh Dadhania, a project manager at Manipal Acunova, a pharmaceutical company in Bangalore, India.

“I also feel that not only should project managers be made accountable for these projects, they should be empowered in their projects,” he says.

This empowerment can only happen if the project manager is truly able to do what's required for project success—and it needs to be established before the project starts.

It all comes back to “extremely good project planning,” Mr. Dadhania adds. “There needs to be clear identification of each team member's roles and responsibilities and there should be continuous training for team members.”

Even armed with a solid plan of action, project managers are still facing higher and higher levels of stress.

One reason is that the focus of projects themselves is no longer just on technical matters, says Alexander Matthey, PMP, managing director of consulting and training company 3PM Experts Sàrl in Vaud, Switzerland.

“It used to be engineers who were the project managers,” he says. But today's project managers need people skills, and unfortunately, most of the rank and file isn't there yet.

“Being a project manager requires a level of maturity and more education,” Mr. Matthey explains. “It will take a decade for the discipline to catch up with what is required.”

At the end of the day, though, he believes organizational change is the only way to reduce high stress levels.

“Businesses need to move into a more projectized mode,” Mr. Matthey says. “Some will need to acknowledge their operation has become completely project-based and as a result the people leading those organizations will need good people skills. That in itself will make life easier for the project manager.” PM



Banish the BlackBerry? Perish the thought.

It would seem like the easiest way to avoid burnout would be to ignore all those phone calls, text messages and e-mails coming in 24/7. But Rakesh Dadhania at Manipal Acunova finds mobile technology actually helps reduce stress. “You are always reachable so your team feels comfortable in seeking your help or opinion,” he explains. “I have seen that technology helps in making the right decisions on a project at a crucial time.”

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