Man with head in hands over work.

Battle Project Manager Burnout! Are you at risk?

Project Management Burnout

It’s inevitable.  You’ve been with the company several years, managed several high visibility projects, are known for high output, are well-rounded, and respected by your peers.  You are so good at your job that leadership says your name every time some team is spun up to analyze project improvement.  In fact, they think that tossing a few improvement teams on you won’t affect your output at all – you’ll just keep on plugging away and making sure every piece of project puzzle fits neatly into place.  Some weeks you put in extra time at the office and most days skip lunch, opting for a sandwich at your desk and instant message with a project colleague because you both happen to have a spare moment.  At least you can chew while you read the responses.  Your cell phone allows work-related email, and because you work on technology projects with heavy-duty systems, you might see emails late into the night.  On the weekend you think about how you might approach a project deliverable or deal with a resource who can’t pull their weight.  You might go into the office five days a week, but you are there almost 24/7.  You may well be on your way to project manager burnout.

However, If you enjoy the above statements and they fit your work ethic; congratulations!

Let’s do a quick check anyway:

  • Do you have a nice backlog of vacation days you haven’t taken?
  • Do you overcompensate and suffer from self-doubt?
  • Have you had some repeated incidents or bouts of non-diagnosed stress-related illness?
  • Having trouble sleeping or feeling unnecessarily anxious?
  • Is there presenteeism? [Going to work even when you are sick., etc.]
  • Do you have all the resources necessary and use your skills to deliver a project? [Like functioning as a project analyst to help you keep financials in control, or systems analyst to troubleshoot, so you spend extra time, get thrown into a new system without proper training]
  • Are you working in a job environment that isn’t comfortable but just like your cubicle mates stick with the status quo?
  • Do you stay at your desk for the entire day, except for bathroom breaks and grabbing snacks or lunch, and never get any physical exercise?

Any positive answer to the above questions means you are at risk for burning out.  Or perhaps you already are but haven’t gotten as far as chronic burnout–and you don’t want to!  According to authors Bakker & Costa (2014), causes of burnout are divided into two categories: situational and individual.  We’ll focus on situational because individual predisposition from personality variables are outside the scope but each reader should consider that factor.  There are two situational factors I’d like you to consider where I have been witness to and suffered from in the workplace.  These are role ambiguity and job resources.

The relationship between job resources and burnout is consistently negative, where lower levels of job resources are associated with higher levels of burnout…

In both individual contributor and management roles, I have seen many different project resources experience varying levels of burnout.  There are particular challenges in some project delivery teams where organizational structure and leadership commitment drove varying levels of limitations on project resources.  As an example, in a matrix based project delivery team, there are challenges when it comes to loading resources and being able to plan them effectively.  Organizations can combat burnout by giving project managers tools that effectively allow planning project resources in matrices and similar structures.  Those same tools build in a level of transparency for all project managers so that they understand how resources are aligned.  This, in turn, empowers the project managers to function better because they understand how projects are supported but they also can see the system working properly.

Caveat:  There is a difference between buying licenses for systems like CA PPM to manage resources and investing in subject knowledge expertise and training-over-time to implement a successful solution!  Just because an organization has a fancy tool doesn’t mean it’s being applied properly!

No one is safe from the dreaded limited resource pool and the days of having specific resources on the bench are far gone.  Portfolio planning can go a long way when aiding project resources in aligning programs and projects in such a way that maximizes the use of those resources at the right time.  Even portfolio planning won’t help when the project team or PMO aren’t supported by executive leadership.  Great vision, effective leadership, and commitment to improvement are critical.  Invest the time in analysis of portfolio and resource management that will enable your project managers to execute swiftly.

Role ambiguity in the project management space seems a little out of place.  A project manager is responsible for scope, budget, and schedule.  That’s not hard at all, is it?  Unfortunately the project manager role, over time, has become a very task-diverse position.  When you consider how many different types of functions they become familiar with, how many various technologies they touch, and how many customers they come in contact with, the project manager role is demanding (and great for those of us who love to learn!).  I would put a heavy wager on large information technology organizations that have minimized the project manager role because of stalled agile transformations that are implemented when not one software developer can be found.  Even if your organization wants to transition from project to product management your currently running processes, projects, and portfolio are at risk.  Job burnout is amplified when roles become ambiguous and project managers don’t know where they stand in the future organization.

Funny story:  you walk into a PMO that’s been functioning for ten years and say, “Let’s define the project manager role.”.

I’m shocked when organizations have been functioning without taking stock of exactly what the project manager does on a day to day basis at least annually.  More importantly, what they aren’t doing.  Project managers can’t be project managers if the functions they are fulfilling are what’s left in the task bucket after all resources are at 100%.  A project manager juggles the three core services, but often there are hidden resource constraints that can slowly creep in and upset the flow. If your project management processes are hidden away in a document repository only to see the light of day in an annual review or have one resource who knows how they all interconnect, you need to assess the situation and plan for how you expect projects to execute (if at all) and drive the vision towards supporting that.

If you answered yes to any of the potential signs of burnout and are grappling with how to combat it; start with your leadership teams to begin defining the roles, get better tools to plan project resources more efficiently, and initiate a performance measurement to help understand how an increase in job demands and decrease in resources will enable the likelihood of burnout in project managers (Bakker & Costa, 2014).

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