Introduction to Stress and Burnout

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Everyone who works knows that on-the-job pressure is one of the major sources of stress in daily life. Project managers are subject to stress due to several different facets of their jobs. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as:

3 The remaining sections are adapted from Mary Khosh and Harold Kerzner, "Stress and Burnout in Project Management," presented at the Annual Seminar/Symposium on Project Management, sponsored by the Project Management Institute, Philadelphia, October 8-1G, 1984.

1. Being tired. Being tired is a result of being drained of strength and energy, perhaps through physical exertion, boredom, or impatience. The definition here applies more to a short-term, rather than long-term, effect. Typical causes for feeling tired include meetings, report writing, and other forms of document preparation.

2. Feeling depressed. Feeling depressed is an emotional condition usually characterized by discouragement or a feeling of inadequacy. There are several sources of depression in a project environment: Management or the client considers your report unacceptable, you are unable to get timely resources assigned, the technology is not available, or the constraints of the project are unrealistic and may not be met.

A state of depression in a project environment is usually the result of a situation that is beyond the control or capabilities of the project manager. This situation can exist indefinitely because the project manager has a great deal of responsibility and very little authority, and has no direct control over the staffing or assignment of personnel.

3. Having a good day. For most people, having a good day implies that something has gone right. In a project management environment, every project may be inherently different, and a good day may simply be the result of the project manager's ability to attack and resolve difficult problems, even if the final result is detrimental to the project. Sometimes it is truly amazing how decision making and looking at the "means to the end" rather than the end itself equals a good day. An experienced project manager once commented: "If I sit at my desk and do not have problems to resolve, then I go out and look for (or even create) problems to solve. That's my definition of having a good day."

4. Being physically exhausted. Project managers are both managers and doers. It is quite common for project managers to perform a great deal of the work themselves, either because they consider the assigned personnel unqualified to perform the work or because they are impatient and consider themselves capable of performing the work faster. In addition, project managers often work a great deal of "self-inflicted" overtime.

5. Being emotionally exhausted. The most common cause of emotional exhaustion is report writing and the preparation of handouts for interchange meetings. Sometimes the project manager finds himself performing these functions for line personnel, but more often than not, line employees procrastinate and force this function on project managers. Since data preparation is a continuous project function, one might expect this effect to occur frequently.

6. Being happy. Happiness generally suggests a feeling of pleasure and contentment. Most project managers view project management as a lifetime profession and are usually quite happy, even under situations of stress. A senior construction project manager commented on why he has not accepted a promotion to vice president: "I can take my children and grandchildren into ten countries in the world and show them projects that I either built or helped build. What do I show them as a vice president? My bank account? The size of my office? The stockholder's report?" Obviously, not all people would respond like this. The work challenge associated with the project environment is a strong driving force toward happiness. There are very few positions where an employee can see an activity through from beginning to end.

7. Wiped out. Feeling wiped out is normally a combination of physical and emotional exhaustion. It is a short-term effect and may be caused by short spurts of intense overtime; nearness of deadlines on the time, cost, and performance constraints; or simply lengthy customer review meetings.

8. Burned out. Being burned out is more than just a feeling; it is a condition. Being burned out implies that one is totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and that rest, recuperation, or vacation time may not remedy the situation. The most common cause is prolonged overtime, or the need thereof, and an inability to endure or perform under continuous pressure and stress. The solution is almost always a change in job assignment, preferably with another company.

Burnout can occur almost overnight, often with very little warning. In one company, a project manager who was managing a high-technology project (and was on the fast track in the organization) burned out and accepted a job as the manager of quality control for a small company that manufactures brooms. In the termination interview, the project manager stated that his reason for leaving was because he felt burned out.

9. Being unhappy. There are several factors that produce unhappiness in project management. Such factors include highly optimistic planning, unreasonable expectations by management, management cutting resources because of a "buy-in," or simply customer demands for additional data items. A major source of unhappiness is the frustration caused by having limited authority that is not commensurate with the assigned responsibility.

10. Feeling run down. Feeling run down is a temporary condition caused by exhaustion, overwork, or simply poor physical conditioning. The run-down feeling usually occurs following "panics," especially as one nears the project constraints.

11. Feeling trapped. The most common situation where project managers feel trapped is when they have no control over the assigned resources on the project and feel as though they are at the mercy of the line managers. Employees tend to favor the manager who can offer them the most rewards, and that is usually the line manager. Providing the project manager with some type of direct reward power can remedy the situation.

Another instance of feeling trapped is when the project manager and line managers work together to develop realistic costs and schedules for a proposal and senior management arbitrarily slashes the price to remain competitive. Now, if the project is awarded to the company, the project manager feels trapped into accepting constraints that are not really his.

12. Feeling worthless. Feeling worthless implies that one is without worth or merit, that is, valueless. This situation occurs when project managers feel that they are managing projects beneath their dignity. Most project managers look forward to the death of their project right from the onset, and expect their next proj -

ect to be more important, perhaps twice the cost, and more complex. Unfortunately, there are always situations where one must take a step backwards.

13. Being weary. Being weary is a combination of several of the previous feelings. This includes tiredness, lack of energy, a worn out feeling, and perhaps impatience. Weariness is usually the transition stage between being tired and being burned out.

14. Being troubled. The two major causes for a project manager to be troubled are optimistic planning (which has since turned "sour") and approaching the constraints of the project with little hope for correction. The latter case is not a really serious problem, because most project managers pride themselves on their ability to perform trade-offs.

15. Feeling resentful and disillusioned about people. This situation occurs most frequently in the project manager's dealings (i.e., negotiations) with the line managers. During the planning stage of a project, line managers often make promises concerning future resource commitments, but renege on their promises during execution. Disillusionment then occurs and can easily develop into serious conflict. Another potential source of these feelings is when line managers appear to be making decisions that are not in the best interest of the project.

16. Feeling weak and helpless. A weak and helpless feeling is a common result of feeling disillusioned. Again, the cause of this feeling depends on the working relationship that project managers have with executives and line managers.

17. Feeling hopeless. The most common source of hopelessness are R&D projects where the ultimate objective is beyond the reach of the employee or even of the state-of-the-art technology. Hopelessness means showing no signs of a favorable outcome. Hopelessness is more a result of the performance constraint than of time or cost.

18. Feeling rejected. Feeling rejected can be the result of a poor working relationship with executives, line managers, or clients. Rejection often occurs when people with authority feel that their options or opinions are better than those of the project manager. Rejection has a demoralizing effect on the project manager because he feels that he is the "president" of the project and the true "champion" of the company.

19. Feeling optimistic. Almost all project managers feel optimistic, even in time of trouble. Project managers often have more faith in themselves and others than other people perceive. Optimism is usually a desired trait in a project manager.

20. Feeling energetic. The work challenge created by the project environment usually brings with it an energetic feeling, where the individual accepts the daily challenge of problem-solving and troubleshooting. The exact degree of energy may depend, of course, on the time of day, the day of the week, or simply the age of the project manager.

21. Feeling anxious. Almost all project managers have some degree of "tunnel vision," where they look forward to the end of the project, even when the project is in its infancy. This anxious feeling is not only to see the project end, but to see it completed successfully.

Stress is not necessarily negative. Without certain amounts of stress, reports would never get written or distributed, time deadlines would never be met, and in fact, no one would ever even get to work on time. However, stress can also be a powerful force resulting in illness and even fatal disease, and must be understood and managed if it is to be controlled and utilized for constructive purposes.

The mind, body, and emotions are not the separate entities they were once thought to be. They are one integrated system. One affects the other, sometimes in a positive way, and sometimes in a negative way. Stress becomes detrimental only when it is prolonged beyond what an individual can comfortably handle. In a project environment, with continually changing requirements, impossible deadlines, and each project being considered as a unique entity in itself, we must ask, How much prolonged stress can a project manager handle comfortably?

Business people deal with these stresses in different ways. It is not unusual to find high-powered, successful executives dropping out and buying farms in Vermont. Nor is it unusual to find a project manager turning bicycle shop owner or house painter. When questioned, they will often say that they did it because the pressures of their old jobs "weren't worth it."

Others are opting for early retirement at age fifty-five rather than continue to face the pressures of a demanding job. They may have successfully moved in their career to a point of having responsibility for large projects involving millions of dollars and interfacing with all kinds of people. However, by then they might prefer not to take on another vast project. They often reach a plateau or develop a neurotic suspicion that every subordinate is competing for their job. In project management, peers may become subordinates. Responsibility increases threefold. Project managers may be caught in a vise of conflicting demands: demands from above to get more done with fewer people, and demands to work harder and longer to meet time constraints.

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Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

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