5 Ways to Deal Stress as a Project Manager

Young woman massaging her neck at desk
Young woman massaging her neck at desk. Chad Sprinter/Image Source/Getty Images

Project management can be a highly stressful job. When you are approaching a deadline, you can be expected to work long hours with the team to get the project over the line.

Then there are the difficult stakeholders, the prima donna project sponsor and a team who won’t do anything you ask. And let’s not talk about the constant changes — it can be hard to keep up when everything seems so uncertain!

Of course, even when your team is a dream to work with and your project structure has inspiring leaders at the top, life can be tough as a project manager.

The outcome of some projects can literally determine the future of your business, so it’s not uncommon to feel highly stressed in the role.

What Stress Looks Like

Project managers can suffer from stress as anyone can. Here are the signs to look out for:

  • Feeling exhausted and emotional
  • Feeling like you have lost your confidence
  • Wondering if you are letting other people down
  • Not being able to switch off (and constantly checking your devices for the latest work-related messages).

Stress manifests itself differently with different people, so be alert for what being stressed looks like for you.

Feeling overwhelmed by your project? Rest assured that you are definitely not alone. Here are 5 things that you can try to get yourself back on track and to banish those stressful feelings.

1. Change Your Attitude

Stress isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes we make stress worse by worrying about it so much. We’re feeling stressed, that’s bad, that makes us feel even worse, so we worry more… It’s a cycle.

Stress doesn’t have to be a disaster. People who feel that stress within reason is just part of daily life can normally manage it better. Don’t let the worry of stress overwhelm you.

This relies on you being able to recognize when stress is at a normal, manageable level and when it is threatening to drown you completely.

However, if you can spot that your stress is manageable for you, and stop feeling that it is an awful thing that should be eliminated totally, you’ll probably feel more resilient and better able to cope with the pressures of work.

2. Say No

Many project managers do more than the ‘managing’ of the project, taking on project tasks as well. Or perhaps they deliver project management training within the organization, or volunteer for a local professional body, or have just taken on the responsibility of organizing the next team building event….

Learn to say no. A lot of the stress of overwhelm comes from having too much on. Prioritize the important stuff to be more productive.

Don’t feel bad about saying no, either! You are doing it to ensure you have the energy and focus to work on the tasks that really matter.

Sometimes project managers take on work that others in the team should be doing. If this sounds like you, ask for help in dealing with the situation. Talk to your boss. Talk to their boss. Get support from your sponsor and get your team to pull their weight so that you aren’t paying the price of their poor performance.

3. Talk To Someone

Many project managers work alone because they are the only person doing that job in that company.

That can make the position very isolating, and when we are alone like that it is easy to feel that we are the only person in the whole world suffering from project-related stress.

That definitely isn’t the case. If you talk to others about how you are feeling you’ll quickly find out that everyone has faced similar things that can derail your project, including stress.

Find someone whom you can talk to. If you don’t feel comfortable making that your manager, find a mentor or someone else whom you trust. It doesn’t have to be anyone at a senior level. Just someone who will listen, share their stories and then be trusted not to tell your confidences to the rest of the office at the water cooler.

If you’d rather keep those discussions outside of work then find industry groups or professional networks where you can build relationships ​or ‘talk’ to others on group forums like LinkedIn.

Don’t forget your network of friends and family: it can help for them to know what you are going through as well.

4. Smile!

It might sound simple but smiling increases the level of serotonin in your body. In turn, that can give you a quick mood boost. Smiling really ought to be one of the habits of successful project managers.

This can also rub off on your colleagues. You never know, you might start a contagious smile that lifts the serotonin level of the whole office!

Another way to take advantage of this is to share something funny with your team. Be conscious of what you forward on to your colleagues but if you have found a joke or image that they will appreciate, then share the giggles!

5. Exercise

Exercise is another way to boost serotonin. Going to the gym or doing an exercise class is fine, but when you feel stressed at work you might not feel capable of giving up that much time to exercise. A quick walk in your lunchbreak is just as good at helping to lift your mood and put your stresses in perspective. In fact, you could say it was better as it happens mid-work day, not before or after work. So you get the benefits of the stress-busting fresh air and exercise to set you up for the afternoon.

You can’t escape workplace stress as a project manager but you can learn how best to handle it. Test out some strategies and work out what has the best, most positive impact on your mood and stress levels.

Sometimes stress is a good thing, and it can certainly provide a rush of adrenaline that can help you guide the team through difficult times and avoid project failure. However, too much of anything is bad for you, so be alert to your own stress levels and what you can do to reduce them. That will make for a happier project manager and a happier team overall, which in turn gives us what the business really wants: more successful project outcomes!