Wellbeing at work: the thing that matters most

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It’s International Project Management Day this week (the first Thursday in November every year) and I think it’s time to revisit a topic that has been especially important over the past 12 months. The world is still adjusting to what work and life look like and how we do all the things we’re supposed to be doing.

I get Anna Codrea-Rado’s newsletter for writers each week and she’s written recently about productivity dysmorphia: the feeling that you’re not productive, even if to external eyes you would rank up there as Person Who Gets Stuff Done. I think I suffer from that, and I’m sure many other project managers do too.

Feeling stressed at work

We rate ourselves by how much stuff gets done. How many tasks are ticked off. How close we are to the deliverables, to inbox zero, to the next project closure report or client demo. But is that really how we should be rating our time. Or ourselves?

What does matter in project management?

Is it delivery? Risk management? Engaging stakeholders? Benefits? Leading the team?


None of those things are top of my list.


You matter.

Your wellbeing, morale, mental health is the most important thing.

You can’t pour from an empty cup.


The Terminal 5 project to upgrade hold baggage screening machines took a #worksafehomesafe approach. Everyone went home on time, every day.

They avoided the excessive hours and “hero” culture we so often see in project teams. They had open conversations about stress and expectations. There was a focus on wellbeing and mental health for the team.

And yes, taking that kind of approach did have an impact on project delivery.

They delivered 35 days early.

Mental Health Champions

Mike Belch, associate director at consultancy RSM, spoke to Project Magazine recently and was open about his experiences with stress.

He went on:

“Every single RSM office has multiple trained mental health first-aiders. Every project management office or major project should have a mental health champion to make sure there are people who can be constantly looking for problems. When they start to see those performance issues, they can do something.W

Interventions don’t have to be large scale. Sometimes all it takes is a chat and a cup of tea. We can all manage that.

Elizabeth and a colleague having coffee in a cafe

The Wellbeing of Project Professionals: We’re Worse off than the Average Employee

APM carried out some research this year into project managers’ wellbeing.

And the results make interesting, if not entirely comforting, reading.

The study concluded that it’s the nature of the work, not the individual, that makes the work a risk to our wellbeing. In other words: it’s not you. It’s your job that is making you feel like this.

The study looked at how project professionals feel about their work. It compared us as a group to 70,000 other employees — the General Working Population (which I’m going to refer to as the “average” worker). It considered the work environment, health and engagement.

What the Study Said

Here are some headlines that I found interesting:

Our wellbeing is highly affected by resources and communication at work, specifically the lack of adequate training to do the job and lack of feedback on performance. We’re affected by this more than the average worker.

The study found project professionals have a worse work/life integration (we used to call this work/life balance) than the average worker.

Project professionals reported higher than average impact of workload on wellbeing, mainly due to tech overload and unrealistic deadlines.

Nearly everything the study looked at to do with workplace relationships was categorised as having a “high riskW of affecting wellbeing. Basically, the people you work with, especially your manager/sponsor, are a cause of stress.

We find our job goals are less well-specified than they are for the average worker. Job goals and objectives are less clear, which results in a relatively lower commitment to achieving them.

Generally, we manage our physical health as well as the next employee, apart from “feeling nauseous or being sick” which was flagged as “high risk”. Significantly more women than men reported this physical symptom impacting on wellbeing at work. Scary.

Psychological health fared less well. The study showed a high level of strain on our psychological health, and linked this to the challenging work environment uncovered in other questions.

Managing Your Mental Health at Work

You’re probably familiar with the kinds of things you should be doing to manage your stress levels:

  • Exercise, especially outdoors
  • Eating healthily
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Drink enough water
  • Prioritising your work and varying what you do
  • Taking breaks
  • Spending time with friends and family outside of work.

Longer term, working on your exit strategy to leave a stressful job gives you an end goal and a sense that you can escape a chronically difficult environment.

And I always feel my problems are put in perspective by watching an episode of DIY SOS.

Elizabeth Harrin reading a book
Doing something you enjoy out of work can give you a mental break from the overload

The APM study looked at some things organisations can do to address the difficult situations project managers find themselves in at work. Many of them require corporate intervention like developing policies on working unsocial hours and dealing with toxic and aggressive management.

But there are some things they highlight that we could take individual action on.

  • When someone’s expectations are not clear, challenge. Push back, ask for detail. Stand up to being poorly managed. This book will help.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses and those of your team so you can support each other.
  • Stop multi-tasking.
  • Limit your work hours e.g. turn off your phone after 8pm (or a time that suits you) and don’t be drawn into the cycle of having to answer every email in real time.
  • Anticipate when a stressful situation is likely to happen and plan how you are going to manage and react to the situation. Set yourself small goals and celebrate your success.

Take Action Today

You can do this today. Get up, get a glass of water. Ask a colleague if they want to walk with you to the sandwich shop. Do one task you’ve been putting off for ages. Leave on time and drive carefully #worksafehomesafe.

And if you are doing all the stuff you know you should be doing, and your wellbeing isn’t improving, it’s time to go. It’s not you, it’s them.

Because you matter, above everything else.


Mike Belch was interviewed in Project, Autumn 2019 edition.

Pin for later reading:

Wellbeing at work written in blue