In all of the discussions and books I’ve been exposed to the subject of mental health as it relates to the profession of program or project managers is almost never discussed. However, I feel it is a subject that deserves an open and honest dialogue.
As a former engineer and an individual contributor I have a first hand experience at some of the mental health challenges program and project mangers face. As an individual contributor I had a certain set of tasks I had to complete. Those tasks were mostly well scoped and understood. I would work hard to get them done and would receive almost an instant gratification that comes from a job well done. I would often get positive re-enforcement from my managers and coworkers when I did my work on a weekly and sometimes even on a daily basis. Often times I had a pleasure of driving home with a positive feeling of being productive and accomplished.
The life of a project or program managers may not be as predicable or smooth. The project / program leadership is often a marathon and not sprint. It may take months or sometimes years to see the true value of our effort fully realized. The work often depends on multiple teams and diverse parts of the organization. It depends on resource allocations, budgets, executive buy-ins and sponsorship. The organizational structures and priorities can change. Unexpected risks from changes in technology, competitive landscape, economics and politics can add a lot of uncertainty. The nature of the job itself means we are constantly managing people without authority. We are dealing with different personalities, mindsets and moods. Sometimes we may be the bearer of a bad news of a project being cancelled, not accepted, or relay a negative feedback. The development teams may view us as someone who is adding pressure while we are trying to drive the program forward and meet the hard deadlines imposed the leadership team. Program managers are seen as the face of the program, a single point of contact for programs’ status and health, while we try to protect our teams from the external politics and battles, it can take its tall. Imagine most program managers have to lead multiple programs or a large portfolio of projects. The pressure does add up especially when our programs fall behind and go into a yellow (at risk) or red (off-track) zones.
It is also important to remember that as a face of the program our energy, attitude and drive provides the fuel for both the development, engineering as well as the leadership teams. If we are tired, stressed and exhausted it’s hard for everyone else to remain enthusiastic, energetic, creative and optimistic.
We need to manage our mental health not only to ensure our professional success but also and even more importantly our personal happiness and health.
This is what helps me.
- Remember the program and project is a marathon, not a sprint. The rough patches will be behind us.
- Be super transparent and document, document, document. If we are transparent about how our programs are doing and any blocker / constraints we encounter. The reasons why something is not going as planned become very apparent. And we can all focus on unblocking ourselves instead of answering the same set of questions over and over again.
- Have a mentor of a friend. Having someone who you can talk to on a regular basis, who would understand what you are going through and can offer a fresh perspective, looking from the outside in, can be absolutely huge. It may not only help us see problems we are facing from another angle, but also give us support and reassurance that we are going in the right direction and how to address any issues and risks. These conversations can give us the reassurance we need and help manage the negative thoughts that can sneak into our minds when things aren’t on a happy path: I am failing? I am not good enough? I don’t know what I am doing?
- Exercise. This seems like an obvious and yet irrelevant advice, and yet I have ignored it for years. When under stress, exercise seem an unimportant distraction and yet it cannot be further from the truth. Without exercise it is virtually impossible to be healthy. I cannot tell you how many times I would start my exercise session or a run feeling down and finishing with feeling positive, clear, enthusiastic and ready to tackle anything in my path. It is absolutely essential.
- Have a good work and life balance. The pandemic of the last couple of years allowed many of us to work from home, which is great. But is also blurred the lines between work and home life. I found myself constantly switched on and thinking about work while I am eating dinner with kids, riding bike, helping them with homework. Work is no longer associated with the office, it is associated with home, so I am always kind of working, ready to answer a slack message or an email anytime. At first I thought it was good, I managed to get something done, while taking a walk with the children on the bike trail. Later I realized it isn’t good at all. I could never fully engage with what I was doing, I was always partially doing something, constantly contexts switching, feeling like I am not excelling in my work or personal like outside of work. The stress and exhausting inevitably start taking place. It is super important to disconnect even if things aren’t going as planned and it feels better to see if you can spend an extra hour, then may be that last bit of a budget or technical uncertainty will be fixed and you will feel a little more at ease. It is almost never the case, and one hour turns into three and the problem may still not be fully solved. Put the problem aside and then tackle it with your team full force when it’s time to step into the field again. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan have both lost plenty of games, they didn’t always feel great on the plane or bus heading to the next game, but they knew they needed rest in order to go and outcompete their next opponent when the time comes and its game time again.
In Summary: Our mental health is extremely important, we need to realize we are doing our best, we are human, we are always learning, every setback is an opportunity to get better, we are honest and transparent, we are going to take care of ourselves and our families first and foremost, so that we can take care of our teams and the projects / programs we lead at work.