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Best of PMTimes: Managing Stress in Project Management


Project Manager (PM) is no doubt one of the most stressful jobs out there as the PM is directly responsible and accountable for the success or failure of a project. Some PMs believed that they can handle and cope with the high level of stress but there are some who are ignoring or refuse to recognize that they are under stress. The experience of stress is not only impacting the cognitive and behavioral performance, it can also have a negative impact on your personal health, wellbeing, and family life. You might not able to change the amount of stress you have on a daily basis, but you can change how you deal with it. It is important to manage the stress before it becomes more and more difficult to handle and manage.


The Yerkes-Dodson Curve

Based on the Yerkes-Dodson curve, moderate level of stress improves performance and when the stress level increases more, the performance decreases. Hence, it is crucial for project managers to be able to moderate the stress levels for optimal performance.


Causes of Stress in Project Management

Imaging the project deadline is 2 weeks away and there are still some critical issues to be resolved. To make it worse, one of your key team members has been hospitalized. Customer is unhappy and management is requesting for a daily review. The source of stress in Project Management can be many and varied. Some common sources are listed below:

  1. Unrealistic timeline
  2. Working in a matrix system which PM does not have the full control of the resources
  3. Lack of resources – human and/or equipment
  4. Proliferation of virtual teams and cross cultural influences
  5. Inter-group conflict in organization
  6. Project environment

And the list goes on.


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Stress Management Techniques

Project Manager must first acknowledge or recognize that he or she is being under stress and then develop self-discipline before proceeding to learn and practice what are the techniques to manage stress. Learning to manage stress successfully begins with our willingness to take an honest look at ourselves.

Many techniques can help to manage stress. There is no-one-size-fits-all technique and no technique will be able to eliminate stress totally. Each person must decide what will work best for him or her. A few techniques should be explored to determine which works best and once they have found some strategies that work, commitment to practicing them is the key for managing stress.

I find five interpersonal skills and/or attitudes that help reduce stress taken from “Tangible Tips for Handling the Endless Stress in Project Management” by Steven Flannes, Ph.D., Principal, Flannes & Associates below to be really helpful in managing stress in Project Management:

  1. Detach or dissociate: Consider the team meeting where you are extremely frustrated by seeing wasted time or the personal posturing from a team member. To use detachment or dissociation, allow yourself to mentally “check out” of the meeting as much as is appropriate, letting your mind wander to a more pleasant image. Obviously, these approaches are used selectively and discretely.
  2. Monitor “what if?” thinking: In the middle of a stressful event, it is natural to engage in “what if thinking,” asking ourselves “What if we’d only done this in the past, then we might not be in this crisis right now?” As is evident, this form of “what if” thinking involves a focus that is not present oriented. An alternative to this form of thinking is to focus very much in the present, such as posing this question to yourself: “It’s Thursday at 3:17 PM, I’ve just received bad news about the project. What can I do in the next hour to take a small step towards improving the situation?”
  3. Develop potent conflict resolution skills: We add stress to our work lives by either under reacting to the stressful situation (avoiding or denying it) or over reacting to the stressful situation (coming on too strong). Both approaches increase our stress. A menu of conflict resolution skills (which will help reduce stress) is found in Flannes and Levin (2005).
  4. Know when enough is enough, and stay away from debating: A natural but often unproductive approach to resolve a stressful situation is to debate another person about the wisdom of your point of view. This does not mean you should not assert your belief, but you should know when to stop, often when your message has been heard. At this point in the dialogue, if we continue try to be seen as “right,” we are actually increasing our stress. It’s better to stop earlier than later; it can be a matter of diminishing returns to continue to be seen as “right.”
  5. Look for a paradoxical component in the situation: In the midst of a situation that is legitimately stressful, we may find ourselves taking ourselves, or the situation, too seriously. Cognitive behavioral psychologists would say that we are engaging in “catastrophizing” behavior, in which we take a singular, negative event, cognitively “run with it,” and then find ourselves believing, for example, that the entire project is probably doomed because of this one serious problem. An antidote to this is to find a paradoxical cognition that you can hold onto, something that will put your stress and worries in perspective.

Other techniques:

Prioritize: Put up a priority matrix and assign every task based on its urgency and importance. Focus on the tasks that are urgent and important. Don’t overwhelm yourself by worrying about your entire workload.
Avoid extreme reactions: Why hate when a little dislike will do? Why generate anxiety when you can be nervous? Why rage when anger will do the job? Why be depressed when you can just be sad?
Applying NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) to Stress Reduction: NLP provides a number of excellent tools and concepts to empower individuals to cope with or change non-resourceful or negative stress to resourceful or positive resources.With NLP you can change overwhelming, immobilizing feelings into powerful motivating forces.
Exercise: Take some time off from your busy schedule and plan for some physical activities, whether it’s jogging, cycling, hiking or other activities to work off stress.
Meditation: Learn how to best relax yourself. Meditation and breathing exercises have been proven to be very effective in controlling stress. Practice clearing your mind of disturbing thoughts.


The success in managing stress does not depend solely on the type of technique that is used, but instead the commitment from the individual that makes the difference. The same strategy might not work for everyone. Individual must take an honest look within him or herself and determine what is practical and make the most sense. Working to reduce stress can enhance happiness and health for many years. It does make a difference!