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Author: Geoff Crane

Projects Are Complex. Are You Looking After Yourself?

Project professionals are used to stress. Some even wear the demands of their job as a badge of honour.

But work environments are becoming increasingly complex as elaborate programs force project resources to do more with less. Further, many companies are preferring a model of contingent, transactional labour to populate their project teams. While this makes for an efficient way to manage a project’s bottom line, it removes some important psychological protections that full-time workers used to enjoy.

Recognizing that increases in workplace stress seemed connected to important changes in workplace organization, Swedish researcher Per Gustafsson ran a fascinating study in 2011. He and his team recruited 791 adult professionals from northern Sweden and broke them into three groups. Each group represented length of exposure to contingent employment: 0 months, 1-25 months and >25 months. On the morning of the study, each participant “spit in a cup” for the researchers when they first woke up.

From these saliva samples, the team measured the participants’ “cortisol awakening response” (CAR). This is an important test because it tells scientists how much stress your body expects to experience over the coming day. This process is largely informed by the amount of stress you’ve already been under – in other words, if your saliva contains high levels of cortisol when you first wake, your body likely anticipates a rough day ahead.

Gustafsson’s results were illuminating. It turns out, the longer participants had been working in contract jobs, the higher their CAR scores were. People with no contract exposure had an average CAR of 34%, people with less than 2 years had an average CAR of 41% and people with 2 years or more of career instability saw an average CAR of 51%. It’s important to note here that as CAR scores go up, the usual risks to health associated with chronic stress also rise. For this reason, contract workers need to take even better care of themselves than they did when they were working full-time.

Unfortunately, there appear to be some complicating snags.

Another Swedish researcher, Annika Zika-Viktorsson, ran a 2005 study where she investigated burnout-like symptoms that she had discovered among project professionals. People whose job it was to constantly shift attention back and forth between different projects saw a loss of efficiency that they felt was outside their control. As a result, she suggested, these environments had impacts on people’s job satisfaction and perceived levels of psychological strain. When multi-project environments became too chaotic, she called this state, “project overload”.

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Zika-Viktorsson gave 392 project workers at 9 different companies in Sweden a self-assessment that measured all kinds of stressful aspects of projects ranging from excessive formalization to lack of personal feedback. These challenges appear in the table below. While many of us have had to contend with the items on this list, it turns out that the one item most likely to create a sense of “project overload” in a project worker was the lack of opportunities for recuperation.

Challenges associated with multi-project environments. Numbers in red are highly associated with “project overload”.

Challenges Correlations with “overload”
Opportunities for recuperation -.23***
Insufficient project routines -.16***
Insufficient time resources -.17***
Number of projects -.14**
Deficient authority -0.09
Challenging project goals -0.08
Excessive formalization -0.06
Personal feedback -0.03
Task resemblance -0.02

More than ever before, it seems there’s never a good time to take a vacation – especially not for project workers. While a project is ongoing, there are always fires to put out. For resources spread across multiple projects, those fires can easily combine to form a 5-alarm blaze. Calmer times between projects, or between project phases might seem like a good time to take a break, but those are usually the times all hands are needed on deck to help plan. This problem of taking time off is even worse for resources who work on contract, or who are measured on “utilization” hours. If these folks haven’t taken time off before a project ends, and haven’t lined up their next job, they likely won’t be able to rest until they’ve found the source of their next paycheque.

It’s tough to say if Gustafsson’s research extends to full-time workers whose jobs depend on the existence of adequate project capacity. It’s also tough to say if Zika-Viktorsson’s “project burnout” applies to single-track project environments. When taken together, however, these two studies paint an important picture. On an airplane, if the cabin depressurizes, you’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Once you’re incapacitated, the advice says, you’re no good to anyone. In a similar vein, a successful project worker will prioritize his or her own mental health above the needs of their project environment so that they will have the fortitude to see the job through to the end.

But life in today’s project environments isn’t as “grab and pull” as an oxygen mask. Boundaries blur, priorities shift and moving parts smack the unaware in the back of the head. Keeping up with multi-project demands without compromising self-care takes both long- and short-range planning.

That can be easy to forget when yet another project charter flies over your cubicle wall to land on your desk.

What’s this nonsense about emotional intelligence, anyway?

There’s been a lot of talk in the last several years about the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

In fact, many organizations are starting to recognize that soft skills are more important than the traditional analytic or trade skills that they used to specifically target in their search campaigns. Old hiring methods that focused on job output have given way to 360-degree “full person” profiling techniques such as the behavoural job interview and social media scans. Of course, human emotions aren’t new. Why then, does it seem we’re suddenly changing our workplace around to accommodate them?

To understand that, I think it’s important to look over the last hundred years or so of Western work evolution. In the 1920s, robber barons were bilking most of the world’s wealth. Our immature economy couldn’t sustain this and so it collapsed. To rebuild from the rubble, a generation of people said “never again” and collectivist values formed, resulting in dramatic wage compression, social services, collective bargaining, and a general “coming together” for universal survivability (which makes the simultaneous McCarthyism in the States rather ironic). Decade on decade, in various ways, unity was the prevailing attitude that our culture embraced. It’s under these very conditions that the traditional, stable, benevolent organization we’ve come to know was created.

OPEC and double digit inflation wrought economic havoc in the 1970s, priming us for the Reagan years. This seems to have been an important turning point. Unity stopped becoming the driving force behind innovation – suddenly every man (and woman) was in the rat race for themselves (remember The Secret of My Success?). Individual achievement became the norm. It didn’t happen immediately, but I believe this paradigm shift began the unraveling of decades worth of organizational fabric. The pace of innovation exploded, bringing with it incredible technology costs. “Superfluous” employee-related costs, like training and development, had to go out the window to feed the upgrade monster. This meant that to find someone capable of performing a specific job, you had to find a candidate who was already doing that specific job somewhere else. This, of course, pushed recruitment costs up, but retention costs necessarily had to come down. Simultaneously, the nature of Western work shifted into a project-based rhythm as operational work was either outsourced or eliminated. (As an aside, I believe that under these conditions, moving recruitment onto the web was the worst possible idea ever, but that’s another story.)

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So where does this leave us? I believe we’re left with a world where individual talent is the working world’s most sought after currency – but (for the most part) that talent is transactional. There will always be people like Jonathan Ive whom companies protect like treasure but for most of us, contract work is becoming the norm. This means that the protective cocoon of an organization’s pensions, benefits, water cooler friends, paid professional development opportunities and after-work parties are gone.

Who will thrive under these conditions? It will likely be people with a very distinct set of skills:

  1. To keep their head above water through the constant sea change associated with project environments, successful workers will need to highly adaptable. This means they will need to retain a cool head under pressure and be able to use logic and reason to carry them through inevitable challenges without succumbing to strong emotions.
  2. To be able to lead others in times of crisis, successful individuals will need strong interpersonal skills, empathy and the ability to form mutually satisfying relationships with other people. They will need to be able to effectively balance their own needs against the needs of others and ensure socially responsible outcomes that map against the greater good.
  3. To be able to stay in the game for the long term, successful workers will need exceptional stress management abilities. This means they will be able to regulate their body’s stress responses, never allowing themselves to become too keyed up for too long. They will take care of themselves mentally and physically, independently of work.
  4. To be able to perform the above, a successful worker today will need high levels of self-awareness. Empathy requires a solid understanding of one’s own feelings while adaptability and stress management both require one to have an intimate knowledge of their own boundaries. This is both so they can protect themselves against too much uncertainty, but also expand those boundaries under controlled conditions.

Together, these four abilities comprise the basis of what has come to be known as the trait model of emotional intelligence. Given the challenges that today’s workers must face, I think it’s no accident that employers are starting to look beyond analytic and technical skill sets in their hires. These “soft skills” have become every bit as important to career longevity as the tangible work results we have traditionally valued.

How can workers hone these abilities? That is a question for another day.