Skip to content

Stress Management for Project Managers

Stress is a growing issue in today’s modern world. As we evolve and become more efficient and older technology is replaced with newer technology, a new set of issues and challenges arise! And as a PM, it is your job to stay fit, healthy and on top of things. This is what you are getting paid for!

One thing that will help you reduce stress in your day=to-day work is to be a great communicator as a Project or Program Manager. Clarity leads to power​ and communication is no exception!. This is one of the most important traits you can have in this profession. ​Additionally, full control of your attitude and emotions is ​a major plus as well.

However, during stressful situations – of which there are ​many in project​ management​ – to keep calm and control your attitude can be a real challenge. My parents taught me to have “nerves of steel” which is the “Swiss expression for full control of attitude”. But this is easier said than done​ AND it takes understanding what triggers you and knowing yourself.​

​That being said, ​how do you gain nerves of steel and a full control over your attitude and emotions? As usual, some people can handle more stress and some people cannot. But to a certain extent you can train the control of attitude if you can mange your stress levels.​ This takes a bit of self-awareness.​

To give you a bit of a STRESS-Round-Up: The word “stress” is misused in many ways and in most cases ​is ​self-imposed. ​How is it self-imposed? Often we may do little things that end up stressing us out later. For example, we don’t set ourselves up for success, we wait until the last minute to complete something, or we don’t give ourselves enough sleep. All of these things, while small, can add up over time and have a tremendous effect on our stress levels.

​T​here is also ​a difference between ​good stress and bad stress. It always depends on the situation and the person. For some people it is their utmost joy – and they may call it relaxing – to jump from a 5-meter springboard into the water. Others may almost have a heart attack just being on the 5-meter level without jumping, and some people have already a high stress level from looking at the 5-meter springboard from the side of the pool. They would never go that high up!

In Projects it is similar. Usually jobs you like, regardless of how big, risky or complicated, for some it’s usually a joy to get it done. If you hate your job, the working package or the people around you, this is when your stress-level goes up. One more point would be the amount of work. If the task list is bursting and the phone doesn’t stop ringing, and the issues are stacking up, these are other potential stress factors. Again, there are people who can handle this to a certain degree. Funnily enough, there are many creative solutions you can apply when stress and tasks are piling up.

When you perceive your situations as bad, your body will produce cortisol and adrenaline, which is to mobilise you for a short-term emergency situation. This is your body’s natural ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Your brain memory is focused on the thoughts what is stressing you and you will operate on the learned habits. The brain’s executive centres (neural circuitry for paying attention, comprehending and learning) are occupied to handle the stress.

If it becomes chronic, it can disrupt almost all of our body’s processes and lead to sleep issues, heart disease, depression, anxiety, digestive complications and a host of other issues. Every once in a while this sort of stress is OK. But when we are in ‘fight-or-flight’ for prolonged periods of time, it can do more harm to us physically than good. This is when we start feeling burned out.

In summary we can say bad stress is not good long-term. However, it is often self-made and it depends on the situation and your level of control.

How do we control it?

If a person can create balance in their life with some exercises daily, a body massage, an exquisite lunch or dinner, a short break or even five minutes of day-dreaming, people often feel rejuvenated and ready-to-go shortly after:

For a quick release of stress, stop what you are doing and take three slow deep breaths. While exhaling, let go consciously of your situation. Breathe it out from your body.

If you have chronic triggers for stress, write them down and prepare an action plan when such a trigger occurs (that’s right, we are going to project-manage our stress). For example, if you know that you are stressed in your car when you drive, leave a few minutes earlier than usual. Put an audio book into your car CD Player and listen to something you like to learn. It will take away your brain from the stress triggers and you “read” conveniently while driving.

  1. Get your tools and support items fixed. If your computer is not working or your car is not starting when you need it, this is something that will push you to your stress limits. Therefore, clean up your computer and sort your data so that you can find it again next time. Make consistent back-ups of your data. Fix your car, clean it and maintain it. You feel immediately better if your car looks nice and you know it will work when you need it. When your environment and tools are working, you can work easily and efficiently. Set yourself up for success!
  2. Park problems in your schedule. If an issue comes up, don’t react out of panic. Take note and plan your actions for the next day to think about and sleep over it. Give yourself space for creative solutions.
  3. Clutter out your brain. Write down your actions, issues, and situations. You can use a specific tool, e.g. Time Management App, or simply a piece of paper. Once you have your stress points on the paper, start thinking about each one what you can do, by when and may be if you need help from someone or if you can delegate some of the topics.
  4. Clean up your desk and clutter out your office. If you have sorted your papers to specific work packages, perhaps put them in plastic folders and sort your stuff around you into a structured manner. This creates space for creativity. When I do that from time to time, it gives me a good feeling and I can start fresh on my projects.
  5. In Projects, one best practice for stress reduction is to plan and to prepare. If you plan and prepare well, you can reduce the stress factors tremendously. It contributes as well for the control of attitude in most of the situations because you know what is coming.
  6. Know what YOUR stress factors are. For me, the big stress factor is too many meetings and no time to do the real work. My work-around is to schedule meetings later in the morning, so that I can do my work or actions before I do anything else. I planned my actions on the evening before, to be effective. And usually I am very efficient because I am fresh early morning. During the meeting itself, I take notes online on my iPad, so that I do not have additional work after the meeting besides the normal actions.

Of course, there are more ways to manage stress. One good way is to meditate a few minutes per day where you focus your brain on one thought only or a pre-made story to actively reduce stress. I will spend one blog just on that to give you the full value. In the meantime, wishing you happy and stress-free project managing!


Peter Wyss