Hello readers and welcome to this interesting piece on stress management in the project environment. Managing stress at work is very important because many organizations now take the subject of employee wellbeing seriously. Indeed, the workplace is a likely source of stress.

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While some workplace stress can be considered normal, excessive workplace stress can interfere with employee productivity and it can have a negative impact on the physical and emotional health of the employee. Although it is evident that not everything in a work environment can be controlled, the good news is that stress can be managed. It does not involve making huge changes, rather it focuses on the one factor that can be controlled: the individual/the employee. Stress management is important to project managers because at this period competition is keener in many industries and it is important to learn new and better ways of dealing with the pressure at work as well as managing projects from start to finish.

What is stress?

Over the years, stress has been defined as strain within a person and as pressure from the environment. Today, the generally accepted definition of stress is seen as an interaction between the situation and the individual. Michie (2002) defines stress as the psychological and physical state that results when the resources of the individual are not sufficient to cope with the demands and pressures of the situation. This implies that stress is more likely to occur in some individuals than others and in some situations than others.

Signs of Stress

Signs of stress are noticeable in changes in people’s behavior, thinking and feelings.

Feeling (Emotions) Thinking (Cognitions)
Anxiety
Depression/tiredness 
 Angry/irritable/frustrated
Apathetic/bored
Poor concentration and memory
Poor organization and decision making
Less creative in problem solving 
 Hypersensitive to criticism
Behavior Your body
Having accidents/making mistakes
Eating/sleeping problems
Taking drugs (e.g., tobacco, alcohol) 
 Problematic social behavior (e.g., withdrawal, aggression)
Sweating, dizziness, nausea, breathlessness
Aches and pains
Frequent infections, Loss of sex drive, 
Asthma, ulcers, skin complaints and cardiac problems

A model of stress at work

Source: http://oem.bmj.com/content/59/1/67.long

Causes of stress at work

Generally, and as it is presented above in the model, causes or sources of stress can be categorized into five categories.

  1. Factors that are intrinsic to jobs
  2. The role of the employee in the organization
  3. Career development issues
  4. Employee’s relationship with others at work
  5. The structure and the climate of the organization

The sources of stress identified above can be further put into two categories:

  • Stress that has to do with the content of work
  • Stress that is related to the social and organizational context of work

The model also shows that if stress persists, it can lead to mental and physical ill health. Empirical evidence shows that the common causes of stress at work include:

  • Fear of being laid off
  • Increased overtime caused by staff cutbacks
  • Pressure to meet high expectations but with no increase in job satisfaction
  • Pressure to work at optimal levels at all times

Situations that are likely to induce stress are those that are unpredictable or uncontrollable, unfamiliar or ambiguous, uncertain, loss of performance expectation and situations involving conflict. Time limited situations such as work deadlines, family demands, job insecurity and ongoing situations or projects also cause stress.

Whose work is stress management?

Both employee and the management are responsible for stress management.

The Employee

As an employee, it is important to note that emotions are contagious. When we are stressed as employees, it has an impact on how we relate with others at work. If an employee is good at managing their own stress, they will affect other employees around them positively. It is also interesting to note that other employees’ stress will have little or no negative effect on such employees. Some tips are provided below on how we can manage stress as employees in the workplace.

    1. Recognize warning signs of stress at work
      The signs and symptoms of stress at work have been provided earlier. It is the duty of the employee to watch out for these signs.
    2. Take care of yourself
      Managing one’s personal life is an effective way of managing stress. When stress interferes with the ability of an employee to perform their work, it is perhaps time to take care of their own needs. This will make the employee stronger and more resilient to stress. Little changes such as eating healthy, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep can help relieve some of the stress. It is also wise to get support from close relationships to help one through times of stress. Simply sharing one’s feelings with another person can relieve some of the stress.
    3. Prioritize and Organize
      To regain control over oneself and the situation when workplace stress becomes overwhelming, an employee should consider doing the following:

Time management tips

      • Create a balanced schedule. Analyze your schedule, daily tasks and responsibilities. Work towards finding a balance between work and family life, daily responsibilities, social activities and downtime.
      • Try not to commit yourself into too many things. Try not to fit in too many things into one day. If there are too many tasks to be accomplished, leave out tasks that are not necessary till the very end or eliminate them completely.
      • Try to start your day earlier. Do not add more stress by running late.
      • Take short breaks throughout the day. Try to get away from your desk at some point while at work. Try to take a walk or just sit back and rest your mind. This will help you refuel and become more productive.

Tasks management tips

    • Prioritize tasks. Make a list of all the tasks that you have to do for that day and arrange them in order of importance (putting the most important task on top). It is advisable to do the unpleasant tasks early. The rest of the day will most likely be more pleasant.
    • Break large projects into small steps. Rather than taking everything at once, make it a step-by-step process.
    • Delegate responsibility. An employee can let go of unnecessary stress by delegating responsibilities to other members of staff. Avoid the desire to control every process of achieving a task.
    • Be willing to compromise. When it is necessary, bend a little and try to find a middle ground that will reduce the stress for everyone.
  1. Improve emotional intelligence
    The ability to manage and use one’s emotions positively and constructively is emotional intelligence. In a work environment where a lot of stress is encountered, employees can manage stress by communicating in a way that draws people closer, repairs wounded feelings and resolves tension and stress. There are four major components of emotional intelligence at work:

    • Self-awareness− ability to recognize one’s emotions and the impact of these emotions on others
    • Self management−ability to control one’s emotions and behavior and adapt to changing circumstances
    • Social awareness−ability to sense, understand, and react to other’s emotions and feel comfortable socially
    • Relationship management−ability to inspire, influence, and connect to others and manage conflict.
  2. Break bad habits
    • Resist the urge to be perfect. Do not set unrealistic goals. Aim to do your best.
    • Think positively
    • Work on improving your weak areas. For example, if you come to work late, set your watches fast. Make a list of all you need to do and stick to it. If your desk is a mess, clean up and throw away the unnecessary things.
    • Do not waste time trying to control the uncontrollable (e.g., the behavior of other people). Rather, focus your energy on the things you can control such as yourself and the way you react to stress.

The Management

Historically, the typical response from employers has been to blame the stress victim rather than the cause of the stress. In recent times, it is increasingly being recognized that ensuring employee wellbeing is an important management responsibility. It is in the best interest of the organization to keep stress levels to a minimum for their long-term economic interest. In the absence of stress at the workplace, there is likely to be low employee turnover, reduction in sickness absence and early retirement, increased work performance, increased client satisfaction and reduced accident rate. An organization works to reduce stress through the strategic activities of project managers, line managers and human resources department.

Good employment practices will generally include:

  1. Looking for the causes of stress at work
  2. Deciding who it might harm
  3. Deciding whether the organization is doing enough to prevent the harm

Evidently, preventing and managing workplace stress requires organizational level interventions. Organizational level interventions can be structural (e.g., staffing levels, work schedule, physical environment). It can also be psychological (e.g., social support, control over work and participation).

Additionally, other organizational changes that managers and employers can make to reduce workplace stress include:

  1. Improve communication
    • Reduce fear and uncertainty by sharing information with employees
    • Define the roles and responsibilities of employees clearly
    • Communicate in a friendly and efficient manner
  2. Consult the employees
    • Allow employees to participate in decisions that affect their jobs
    • Consult employees about scheduling and work rules
    • Do not set realistic deadlines
    • Appreciate the work of employees and show that individual workers are valued
    • Offer employees rewards and incentives
    • Celebrate good performance verbally and officially (e.g., employee of the month scheme)
    • Provide opportunities for career development
  3. Cultivate a friendly social climate
    • Provide opportunities for social interaction among employees
    • Let management actions be consistent with organizational rules
    • Have a no-tolerance policy for harassment

Conclusion

Stress appears to be inevitable at work. However, it is obvious that stress can be prevented and managed. The employee and management are both responsible for managing stress at work so that the organization can keep up with good performances. As project managers, it is imperative to ensure that measures are taken to prevent and manage stress of project team members. The task of project managers in managing stress is more complex because they are responsible for themselves as well as others. As is necessary, project managers must empower their subordinates to reduce stress to a minimum. The tips provided above would be very useful do this.

In addition, it is very important to focus on the one most important factor that can be controlled in managing stress. That factor is YOU. Treat yourself better and find better ways of approaching the pressure of work. Keep in mind that when you are not happy, many other things are likely to go wrong and the company is most likely to under-perform. We don’t want that to happen now, do we?

That’s all we have for today and once again thank you for reading. Do not forget to drop your thoughts and questions in the comments section.

References

http://oem.bmj.com/content/59/1/67/T2.expansion.html

http://oem.bmj.com/content/59/1/67.long

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/coping-with-stress/art-20048369

http://www.helpguide.org/mental/work_stress_management.htm