Project Management Institute

Under pressure

VOICES | Project Toolkit

From looming deadlines to scope changes to overbearing clients, projects can be stressful. But the stress doesn't have to be overwhelming. We asked practitioners:

When the pressure is on, how do you relieve your team's stress?


Sweat It Out

“Trying to deliver excellent quality under tight deadlines carries a strong risk of stress which, in my experience, reduces team members’ productivity and efficiency.

We've adopted a practice that may seem less important than, say, risk management, but is actually just as useful: 20 minutes of daily exercise. A professional trainer visits the office and leads us through stretches, relaxation and strengthening exercises, along with games that reinforce the team dynamic. The sessions aren't mandatory, but most team members participate. Not only does exercising prevent strain injuries (like the ones you might get from sitting in front of the computer for several hours and having bad posture), but the sessions improve the team's mental health and contribute to better performance and productivity.”

—Andrea Paparello, PMP, project manager, LDS-LABS, Fortaleza, Brazil

Take a Laugh Break

“I've found the best way to handle stress is humor and team camaraderie, especially when we're trying to problem-solve. I encourage the team to brainstorm together by asking them to share a relevant experience (“tell us about the last time you dealt with a similar issue”) and the lessons learned from it. Then I'll attempt to find some humor in the event. But humor doesn't have to be about work—it can be a silly chat for a few minutes about what happened at lunch. If all else fails, I'll share a Dilbert comic strip [known for its satirical office humor].

Once, on a very challenging project with an extremely tight deadline, our developers were having trouble coming up with a solution to a problem at a meeting. So they took a break to banter. Even though they were joking, I could tell it was a productive conversation, so I didn't stop the flow of energy. We all laughed for a few minutes and gave our brains a break from the stress. By the time the meeting ended, the team had come up with a solution.”

—RaeLynn DeParsqual, PMP, project manager, Insight Global, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

Inclusive Planning, Constant Communication

“Avoiding surprises—both from team members and issues that may arise with the project itself—is a good way to keep team stress to a minimum.

A 3-Step Solution

Stress is a natural defense mechanism to keep us alert to possible danger. It's also subjective: During the same project, one team member may feel much more stress than another. Alan Patching and Rick Best's 2014 study, An Investigation Into Psychological Stress Detection and Management in Organizations Operating in Project and Construction Management, published in the journal Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, suggests three steps for managing individuals’ stress Levels:


1. Note job-related stressors and apply risk management strategies

2. Monitor when a team member seems stressed and teach him or her coping techniques

3. Monitor the results

To that end, I do a lot of work in the project's planning stage. I meet with the team to discuss scope and what needs to be accomplished, and we discuss various options and their associated risks until we reach the best one. I also ask my team members what they specifically want to achieve on a particular project and how they plan on achieving it.

Once the project gets underway, I hold face-to-face discussions with team members during which they can talk about their needs and concerns with the project. Asking for feedback lets me fix misunderstandings as soon as they arise. Plus, I've found that when everyone on the team feels heard, it's more likely that they'll happily proceed with the job at hand.”

—Nick Fartais, PMP, project manager, Endeavour Energy, Sydney, Australia

Manage the Workload

“Stress management equals workload management. It's difficult to make sure any single team member doesn't feel like the project is entirely on his or her shoulders, but always remind them that—to paraphrase Ben-Hur—we all exist for the good of the ship.

I was working on a project to develop a training exercise for two U.S. Army divisions and several smaller units. As the Army kept adding units to the exercise, we rapidly outgrew the available space. My team's stress level climbed as the units were added.

The first thing I did was remind the project team members who weren't affected by the space issue to continue on with their parts of the project. Then I took the remaining team members down to the training site. After three weeks of problem-solving, we determined how to maximize the space and remotely connect to other sites so everyone could participate in the exercise.

Be the shield that protects your team. And of course, know when to send your people home.”

—Brian Schonfeld, PMP, operations officer and travel program manager, Mission Command Training Program, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA

Work Toward a Common Goal

“As a project manager, you have much to gain by building a strong sense of shared purpose. Make the team collectively commit to complete work within a sprint. Help the team by removing impediments to progress. Then there should be no reason to feel any stress.

A couple of years ago, I was leading the project management office (PMO) at Europe's leading provider of accessories for sound and vision. We had the opportunity to pursue an emerging product category, but the technology was immature and not widely tested. The engineers had no real feeling for the product or the purpose.

However, the CEO helped by providing an inspiring market vision and customer dialogue. To avoid stress due to uncertainty, we designed in modules and prototyped a lot. With time, the modules grew into a shippable product. As a result of the hard work we put in, we became early adopters of the product and the team became industry experts along the way!”

—Richard Svahn, PMI-ACP, PMP, project manager, National Civil Authority, Stockholm, Sweden

What's Your Solution?

There are myriad ways to prevent and manage stress. Share your tips and tricks on the PMI Project, Program and Portfolio Management LinkedIn Group.


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