How often do you see it? An IT project team starts out collaborating well. Three months later they are in fire-fighting mode and blaming one another for the chaos. Team members may have gained weight, resumed smoking or even experienced trouble with their families or sleeping. It’s all evidence of too much stress.
Excess stress isn’t just bad for individuals, it’s bad for business too. If you find your project team has locked into response mode, operating on a task-by-task level to survive the day, you may be achieving less than you think. Better project management that puts stress in balance can help you increase your competitive edge.
What’s bad for the brain is bad for business
When you’re under stress, you use less of the front part of your brain responsible for advanced thinking, and more of the back part that handles primitive thought processes such as the fight-or-flight response. Consider the over-burdened IT executive who, during a project meeting, checks his e-mails and calendar on his laptop, or responds to messages on his handheld PDA, He’s so busy multitasking to keep up that he isn’t using the full capacity of his brain. He misses things, doesn’t ask the right questions, and can’t quickly prioritise issues. As a result, the project doesn’t run as efficiently as it could. Of course, not all stress is bad. In fact, occasional stress can be motivating. But as business problems increase in complexity and cycles of change accelerate, more employees today are in a constant state of survival mode than ever before, and their work can suffer because of it.
Manage more when you manage stress first
Any organisation that can keep its employees relaxed, focused and using their full mental capacity is going to operate more effectively – and ultimately be more competitive – than one whose employees are highly stressed and locked into a pattern of reacting to problems or competing with each other.
While you can’t necessarily change the external forces causing stress levels to rise, you can recognise the signs and take action to help employees find balance well before the fight or flight response kicks in. Sometimes managers are under such pressure that they depersonalise employees, viewing them as numbers, budget line items or roles. If you can see employees as unique people with individual needs, both inside and outside of work, you’ll be more likely to keep stress in check.
How to keep stress under control from the start
Awareness is the first step in dealing with elevated stress, yet one of the first things you lose under pressure is your ability to self-monitor. Ask questions that will help a project team look inwards at how stress may be negatively affecting their behaviours and lives. Model behaviour that doesn’t promote stress as a badge of honour, but encourages people to set healthy boundaries and teaches them when to say no. If employees are over-committing, look for ways to reduce the demands on their time and check their priority levels. Offer support and encourage them to take a good look at their diet, sleep and exercise patterns–the first to suffer when stress becomes unmanageable.
Remember, high stress may be a badge of honour on the battlefield or in sports. But in business, where maintaining competitiveness means thinking and operating at our best, it’s nothing more than a liability.