The Globe Trotting Project Manager and Mental Health Wellbeing

 As it is Mental Health week my thoughts went to how us Project Managers can be affected by the work we do.

My company, Prime Design, is a small independent project management company specialising in running manufacturing projects around the globe. This means our project managers are often travelling and working in unfamiliar places on large projects for considerable periods of time.

The roles frequently involve working in a new country, often with teams of people who have come together for the first time and whose first languages are different.

All this in addition to the normal project responsibilities and activities can increase the risk of stress and anxiety for our employees.

In his blog entitled, Coping Strategies for the Always-On PM, Mark Mullaly President of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, said:

“Let’s face it. Project management is not a 9-to-5 job. It doesn’t fit into a nice, normal, predictable work week.”

Of course, that’s why many of us are attracted to the role in the first place. We like the variety. We find the challenge appealing. The idea that every day is different is motivating, not disturbing. We like having a tangible impact. We like the adrenaline. Some of us thrive on the chaos that ensues from wrestling with uncertainty and wrangling change.”

That is certainly true of some of our employees. We enjoy bringing order to potential chaos and creating manufacturing facilities of value to our customers.

The concept of the “always-on Project Manager” rings a bell in our business. It certainly is not a 9 to 5 job, especially when we work with project teams in different time zones. During the pandemic, this “always-on” culture has become even worse. We are now “connected” 24 hours per day through mobiles and computers and with the software we use we can “walk through” factories in China without having to be there. We hold virtual meetings from early morning to late at night in our own time zone to accommodate our customers and suppliers in their time zones; often in the family home. The pressures increase by being on our own and not having colleagues to discuss solutions face to face.

When we do travel, living away from home means it is extremely difficult to switch off from work. As discussed above, having to communicate across a number of time zones alone, inevitably creates very long working days. In addition, though, only having fellow project team members to socialise with, at least initially, means the project is almost always at the front of mind for our PMs.

Again, Mark Mullaly has good advice on how to deal with the temptation to be always working or thinking about work. In his blog he discusses the following solutions:
• Clearly negotiate expectations
• Set boundaries.
• Manage notifications.
• Be consistent in tool choices
• Keep planning ahead.
• Be disciplined about what you need to accomplish.
• Schedule time for your own work.
• Schedule time for you.
• Don’t beat yourself up.

Many of these are personal choices for PMs, but there is much our organisation can do to support the well-being of our PMs. We need to understand what choices our PMs are making for a start. This will help to indicate if PMs are likely to become overstressed or over anxious.

Key things we can do as a business to support our PMs are:
• Clearly define the project and scope of work we shall be providing with our customers
• Ensure PMs have the experience and the character to take on a project
• Explain the project scope and likely conditions in the country where necessary to the PMs
• As mentioned above, understand how our PMs work and ensure they feel they can talk openly to us prior to beginning the project. We need to discuss a structure round which we can work, setting clear expectations for the business and for the PMs.
• Set up weekly calls, at a time to suit the PMs, to discuss how the project is running and any work concerns they have. Send support to sites when PMs are struggling with issues.
• Look at ways in which we can provide a support network in the countries where the projects are taking place and if necessary, provide support to PMs’ families at home
• Agree how frequently visits home will be prior to beginning the project
• Be flexible when a PM has family issues
• Provide a 24-hour support line to counsellors for PMs to discuss worries when they are over stressed or over anxious and do not want to talk to the business about these worries.

Above all our PMs need to feel they can communicate honestly with our business so that we can try to resolve any issues they have.
We have not always been successful in taking all these steps but we aim to do so. If you have any further ideas to help secure the wellbeing of people who work away from home then please leave your comments.

Reference: Coping Strategies for the Always-On PM, Mark Mullaly