How to reduce project burnout
Project management is an art and science of compromise and balance, where “you win some, you lose some” may as well be the trade slogan. Priorities shift, lives change, client demands can be capricious, and the future is never as clear as it was charted during the scoping phase. But no one wants to lose team members to burnout. Helping contributors protect themselves helps protect the health of the project, and the investment the entire team has made in each individual. If you’re looking for ways to reinforce the well-being of your teams, start with these six steps.
Walk the walk that well-being is actually important.
If the well-being of project members is actually important, say so. Up front. In writing. Being forward about well-being also helps make it clear that team members have a responsibility to take care of themselves, not just feed the project machine.
“Incorporating such values into team charters and guiding principles communicates to the team that it’s okay to take time and engage in activities which help us feel balanced,” says Cindy Calvin, senior marketing project manager at Veterans United Home Loans.
Reduce burnout by curtailing inflexible expectations.
Project managers have to be willing to advocate for changes in expectations when the reality on the ground changes. Amanda Conkol, currently technology solutions team project manager at CDI Corporation, recalls a project which was overseen by five different CFOs. Individually and jointly, they kept a very tight rein on the budget. The constraints burned out the original project manager, who left the position.
“It wasn’t the message they wanted to hear, but I told them that in order to make this project successful, we are going to have to be more lenient on the budget,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the only way to regroup.”
Stop over-scheduling minor tasks.
When schedules and timelines dwarf all other forms of communication and collaboration, they grind the life out of everyone involved. “A timeline shouldn’t have that much power. Timelines are only used as management tools if no one is acting as a decision-maker,” says Jayne Heggen, president of strategic consultancy Heggen Group LLC. “Yes, you as a project manager have to keep things in-scope, on-time, and on-budget, but you have to work across all of these in a balanced way.”
Heggen believes that overly granular ticketing and sub-step scheduling increases the chance of burnout. “You can’t treat each substep as being as important as the entire milestone. If you manage times for every task for every project, you face total burnout,” she says.
Give people a sanctioned break from the pressure.
If a project manager is only there to enforce deadlines, then they will also be the last to know when someone is on the verge of cracking. Offering team members ways to blow off steam not only helps reduce strain, but also helps you see first-hand how people are coping with demands. “I would bring in Play-Doh, Silly Putty, jump ropes, whatever it would take. Whenever things got rough, people knew there was always a toy box in my office to come and play with,” Conkol says.
Get face time, even if it’s only FaceTime.
Conkol’s current project teams are virtual, with a completely remote workforce, so the old toy box doesn’t help anymore. But she found that face-to-face communication is still key to getting a good read on people and defusing pressures before they boil over. Even the willingness to take part can be a crucial well-being clue.
“You can always tell when somebody’s camera doesn’t turn on right away that something’s going on,” she says. Use that time to recognize and celebrate individual accomplishments. A few plaudits or a token gift can go a long way towards building up goodwill for the next big push. “People don’t forget how you make them feel, so help recognize the uniqueness of each individual on the team,” Calvin says.
Conkol also advises finding ways to meet with team members that don’t focus on business. Apart from taking the pressure off, it will also help you understand the incentives, plaudits, and de-stressing systems that each team member prefers. “I had a gal on a team who didn’t care for my gamey attitude of rewarding people with toys and gift cards. So we spent a half-hour at Starbucks, and I got to know about her family and background and where she was coming from,” she says.
Understand your critical path.
Sometimes project managers do, in fact, have to push people beyond their stated comfort levels. That being said, make darn sure that you’re pushing for something that’s really meaningful. Thomas Stevens, president of PMAlliance, favors network-based project mapping that makes it easy to identify the critical path of a project—the crucial steps around which the rest of the tasks pivot.
“A normal project has 15 to 20 percent of activities on the critical path,” he says. “That means 80-plus percent have some slack or slippage, so if there’s a miss, it’s not a catastrophe. But if you don’t have a network-based plan, you may treat everything as though it’s critical.”