Stress goes with the project manager territory and most of you have probably developed coping mechanisms or learned to live with it. I have been in the world of project management for over 20 years and have seen all kinds of stress. Budget stress, schedule stress, overdue assignments, and changes in management or requirements, customer reviews; need I go on? However, a stressful event with a high probability of happening, and almost an impossibility to prepare for completely, involves the serious illness of a loved one in your family or a family member of someone on your team. I experienced this recently and wanted to share my thoughts with you.
Parents get older and sickly, children become seriously ill or are hurt in any number of ways or a spouse suffers from a disabling condition. Make no mistake; any of these events take priority attention away from work for you or your team member (never confuse the priority of family and work). At this point, your project responsibilities take a back seat to your personal trauma. As the project manager, you need to provide support to your team member or take care of yourself, while devising strategies that continue the project’s accomplishments. Easier said than done, believe me.
What to Expect
Work time will be lost. In the beginning of an event, you or your team member may be gone for perhaps one to two weeks. During and for some time after the crisis events, the individual will experience interrupted sleep and eating schedules. Routine personal tasks will be put off and added to the schedule when time is available later. Stress that results from situations, such as the need to become a caregiver for a seriously ill person, leads to feelings of fear and anxiety that further impacts rest and nutrition.
Research from the Franklin Institute has shown that stress and the over-secretion of hormones, related to the body’s attempt to deal with stress, negatively affects brain function, especially memory. “Too much cortisol can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory or from accessing already existing memories.”
Another response to expect is some form of emotional labiality – that is situational over-reactions of sadness, happiness or anger. Situations that the person typically dealt with successfully become triggers for extreme reactions. In addition, the combined effects of stress can lead to illness in the caregiver, as the body finally says, “enough, I need a break.”
Here are a few suggestions to help you deal with a family crisis and while meeting work responsibilities.
- As project manager, you need to have a risk mitigation plan for family crises that may impact the project – either a personal crisis or one affecting team members.
- Encourage your employee (or yourself) to take the time you need and not try forcing work product out of your tired brain and body. (I assure you that the person going thru this crisis will be exhausted!)
- If you expect to be away from your job for more than a week, designate someone you trust to make decisions and interface with the organization on your behalf. Provide that person with a memo of instructions and authorization as well as alerting your supervisor and team.
- Understand what to expect in terms of team member availability. Even when the teammate returns to work, expect (and accept) decreased performance and challenges to concentration and ability to remember details and commitments. When you need to remind someone going through a personal crisis of upcoming events or tasks they need to be doing, do so with sensitivity (Remember this might be you one day).
- When you are the distressed person, learn to ask for what you need. Encourage your employee-in-crisis to let you and their co-workers know how to help. It is difficult to help when you do not know what is needed. Most people go into “cocoon mode” when this type of crisis happens, so you may have to ask them gently more than once.
- Encourage stress relief and stress management through physical exercise, relaxation and healthy eating. In other words, invite them out to lunch, to the gym, round of golf, etc…
- Be tolerant and practice patience. Individuals experiencing highly stressful situations will not be themselves. Find ways to reduce their workload and offer flexibility in how and where tasks are carried out.
- Be there to listen, but don’t probe. Give advice only when asked.
- As project manager, if you see your worker’s performance deteriorate significantly, suggest they talk with HR or Employee Assistance Programs to get help.
- Let the employee know that the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees workers who need to care for a seriously ill parent, child or sibling up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if employed by private companies with 50 or more employees.
No one likes to think about terrible life events or crisis with their family. But just like projects, things happen – illness, accidents, and death are a part of all our lives and as project leaders we need to be able to cope with this in a human and caring way. The dividends of helping each other out during this type of event can be huge. Good working relationships are formed for life when people help each other out.