Straight Talk on Project Management

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Avoiding Burn-Out: Five IT Project Management Self-Care Tips 

As I write, we’re heading towards International Self-Care Day on July 24th – the culmination of the World Health Organisation’s Self-Care Month. Hope you’ve been feeling the love.

We invest a lot of time, energy and budget on the “self-care” of our IT projects, in terms of robust governance, strong PMO (Project Management Office) and world-class processes, etc – but do we pay enough attention to our individual or team’s self-care?

Given the anecdotal stress, work-overload and burn-out in our industry, I’m thinking – NO.

There appears to be a gap between how well organisations think they are doing and how well their employs report they are doing. Deloitte just released their Well-being at Work Survey and 90% of executives believe that working for their company “has a positive effect on worker well-being”, however just 60% of workers agree. So, let’s put self-care in the spotlight.

According to WHO, self-care is “any action that an individual takes to look after their own health, based on the knowledge and information available to them”, with that in mind:

Five IT Project Management Self-Care Tips 

1 – Avoid Overloading Your Day

Do you have a list of non-negotiable tasks on your daily “to-do” list? How many? Some of the most successful project managers I know keep a close check on this and limit the number of crucial daily tasks they commit to. The theory is that by committing to a task in your diary, you are more likely to achieve it but there is a sweet spot – asking around, three seems to be the magic number.

This doesn’t mean you can’t complete five or six tasks in a day, it just means that, when you complete just three, you don’t go home feeling that you’ve failed!

PM Laurie-Anne has a process called “Commit/Omit” that I love, and which pretty much explains itself, she looks at today’s “to-do” list, applies Stephen R Covey’s four quadrants of prioritisation model to them to identify the important and urgent tasks and then commits to the top three. Anything left is rescheduled or delegated. As a result, her team is always attacking the most tasks with the greatest return for their investment of time!

By only committing to three you also leave room for those inevitable-yet-unexpected challenges that can throw an overloaded daily work plan off course.

2 – Prioritise Resource Resilience

Unrealistic workloads are among the greatest causes of project manager burn-out. We’ve all been there, when you feel like you’re doing the work of two or three people – you usually are!

If your project has a key competency gap, if you have talent off sick or haven’t yet replaced a colleague who has moved on, if your project workload has increased but your headcount hasn’t, your team is likely to be too overstretched to cover. That’s just three scenarios where resource issues could lead to burn out and stress, I’d bet your project management team could double or triple that list based on their experience.

Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service is a great way to ensure that your project has the exact talent you need, at the exact moment and for the exact duration that you need them, taking the load off your in-house team. Stoneseed’s team of Project Management and Technical Professionals, deliver services through a flexible, on-demand resourcing model. From strategy to programme and project delivery – available onsite or remote. Furthermore, this cost-effective model for project delivery is underpinned by Stoneseed’s PMO, methodology and toolset.

3 – Learn To Say “NO”

As an IT Project Manager you communicate project complexities as if they’re nursery rhymes, BAs translate IT project jargon into business speak and vice versa as if both are their native language, and yet many of us struggle with a simple word – NO.

Perhaps we should be more careful about what we say “yes” to. Agree to an unrealistic deadline and you risk rushing and delivering a lower quality end product, agree to increase your workload and you risk burn out, agree to cover a competency that you’re not 100% proficient at and you risk a calamitous execution and reputational damage!

Saying “no” to the board, to a senior leader, or project sponsor feels awkward though, right?

Writing “How To Prevent Project Burnout Before It Strikes”, for BA Times, Adrian Reed suggests, “Perhaps it’s all about how the message is given:”

Say “yes, and here’s the impact”: Imagine you’re stretched, and another task comes in. A way of responding might be to say: “I can absolutely do that, by that date. However, this will impact tasks B and C. Are you happy for this new task to take priority?”.

Say “Thanks for thinking of me, let me introduce you to someone that can help”: It’s easy to inadvertently take on the work that others might be able to do more effectively. Perhaps someone is asking you to pick up a support issue on a project that launched months ago and is now in ‘Business as Usual’ (BAU). A response might be “Thanks, it’s always really interesting to hear how things are going on that system! I’m somewhat out of the loop with that now, as the support team took over. It’s really important that these issues are logged with them, so they can track trends. Shall I send you over a link to the defect logging form? If you don’t get any response, feel free to follow up with me and I’ll connect you with my contact there”.

Say “No, but here’s what I can do (and offer options)”: Imagine a completely unrealistic deadline has been given. Saying yes will save short term pain but will cause long term issues when the deadline is missed. A better option may be to say “I can’t hit that deadline (for the following reasons), however here’s an estimate of what can be done. Alternatively, with additional resource we could achieve this…”

Finally, a flat out “no” is fine sometimes: Not everyone agrees with this, but in my view, particularly when something is optional, it’s fine to say a flat out no. “Would you like to help organize the summer BBQ?”.  “No thanks, I’ve got a lot on right now, so that’s not something I’m interested in”. Of course, this needs to be delivered with rapport, empathy and respect.”

I love these!

I’ve just forwarded this to a good friend who delivered an IT Project into service six months ago and is still getting calls and emails from end-users asking for advice, bypassing the team responsible for such things. Shortly after transition into service, the “Project Service Delivery Team” forwarded an email reply from my friend (rather than copy-paste his advice) to all end-users and that opened up a floodgate for every enquiry ever since causing unnecessary stress and extra work. It’s not lost on me that this team’s acronym PSDT is an anagram of PTSD! He needs to nicely but firmly say “no” and redirect enquiries to the PSDT.

4 – Be Each Other’s Mental First Aid Kit

If you cut your finger at work, you’d know exactly where to head! The first aid box on the wall, in the cupboard or on top of the fridge has everything you need to fix physical injuries (before seeking further medical help if needed).

What about our mental health? There’s no green box for that!

Being “Each Other’s Mental First Aid Kit” is about being there for each other. Asking “Are you OK?” has become a rote throwaway pleasantry, few truly listen to the reply – largely because the answer is often something like “I’m fine”.

The nature of our work is that we spend a lot of time staring at a screen, often working remotely or alone, (even if we’re in a busy office we can be so hyper-focussed on our task that we may as well be working solo).

When you make asking “Are you OK?” a real opportunity to connect, listen and be open, you provide an early outlet for colleagues to share when they’re struggling, or verbalise any anxieties that they have.

This doesn’t make you a counsellor or a mental-health practitioner any more than applying a plaster makes you a surgeon – it’s first aid.

A colleague recently completed a Mental Health First Aid course at work with MHFA and describes the experience as transformational. Other courses are available, but MHFA is “a social enterprise, a company without shareholders” offering “expert guidance and training to support mental health, in the workplace and beyond.”

Finally, we don’t need to take a course to be able to look out for warning signs, not only in our colleagues but in ourselves too. I recall a friend talking about ‘digital red flags’ a coworker was exhibiting, emailing at 5.30am and then again at 11pm. Now, it might be your colleague has a work pattern that fits their life, for instance, working before the school run and catching up after putting the kids to bed, but it might also be a sign that they’re putting in an 18-hour shift because of workload, overwhelm or personal issues. Calling them and simply asking “Noticed the times of your emails, everything OK?” can allow them an opportunity to release and address any issues.

5 – Deliberate Self-Care Actions

“Self-care actions are habits, practices and lifestyle choices – things that we can do to help look after ourselves and lead a healthier life,” says WHO’s Self-Care Day webpage. Due to the busy realities of IT Project Management, it can be easy to overlook these basics. WHO suggests these Self-Care actions:

Taking regular physical activity – physical activity has huge health benefits for our hearts, minds and bodies. Did you know that physical activity helps to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety? It also helps with thinking, learning and making judgements.

ii) Eating a healthier diet – eat a variety of foods including whole grains, nuts, lots of fruit, and vegetables, and legumes like lentils and beans. And don’t forget foods from animal sources like meat, fish, eggs and milk.

iii) Looking after our mental health – good mental health is vital to our overall health and well-being. Things that help us look after our mental health include following a healthier lifestyle; spending time in nature and outdoors; talking to family and friends; getting a good night’s sleep; managing stress and limiting ‘high-risk’ situations; talking about mental health problems as they arise and seeking help when needed. 

iv) Quitting or cutting down on alcohol and tobacco.

Some great advice here, I think that talking about your mental health is really important, and a colleague is now “eight months sober” and says she’s never felt sharper at work! Ultimately, “Self-Care” is a “you do you” endeavour – it’s not “one size fits all” (another colleague laughed when I suggested giving up a glass of Pinot after a stressful day!!)

In conclusion, the important thing, I suppose, is that we are there for ourselves and each other.

If you or your IT Project team are experiencing burn-out and stress caused by a lack of a project manager or a business analyst (or whichever talent gap you have), Stoneseed is here for you.

Are you OK?


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