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Are project managers mentally exhausted from COVID-19?

By ILX Team | 25 September 2020

A project manager’s role is much like a juggling act. Keeping each ‘baton’ of the project moving is challenging at the best of times, but when COVID-19 came along PMs were expected to perform it all whilst standing on a ball! Even the most talented project professionals have been pushed to the limits by the pandemic.

Analogies aside, in this post we take a look at the substantial effects these trying times can have on our work life and wellbeing. We’ll also cover what individuals and organisations can do to craft an open, supportive workplace culture which addresses these issues.

Has COVID-19 caused mental exhaustion?

Despite being well-adjusted to coping in pressured situations, nothing could have prepared project professionals for the earthquake effect COVID-19 had on our careers. Roles became ten-fold more logistically challenging, but also far more mentally and emotionally demanding too.

A phrase coined by some is ‘moral fatigue’. Essentially, we are becoming exhausted by what should be routine decision making due to the moral implications of our actions. We have become burdened with the weight of how our decisions impact others, and our every move now requires critical thinking.

For a project manager, who likely makes hundreds of decisions over the course of a project, it’s easy to see how they could find themselves drained and in a state of mental exhaustion. Each task and process has been turned on its head and assessing how to act and respond has become ever more difficult when there is no clear-cut answer.

Project managers have truly been tested over the last six months, and so it is highly likely that many will find themselves showing signs of moral fatigue, burnout and even chronic stress.

How can I overcome mental exhaustion at work?

In an article by BBC Worklife, experts agreed that experiencing emotional exhaustion is to be expected during the pandemic, but said, “the problem is that many of our usual coping mechanisms have vanished”. A key way to cope with work stress is with a hobby that engineers a work/life balance. However, with pandemic restrictions still very much in place, the last thing you need is more pressure to partake in a hobby which comes with logistical and moral challenges of its own.

In order to cultivate a rich non-work life, be sure that the activity is relaxing and comes easy. Meditation, listening to music, or reading a book are great options. It could be as simple as making time to do nothing. Taking a walk or other form of exercise are great options too. As well as being great for mindfulness, fitness activities have been proven to reduce stress, as they lower cortisol levels and release endorphins.

Likewise, battling chronic stress requires you to ‘replenish your resources’, and the optimum way to do this is by getting enough sleep. Achieve this by maintaining a regular sleep pattern, unplugging from technology for an hour or two before bed, and avoid caffeine later in the day. Get enough sleep and you will soon see your mental functioning improve and be on the path to overcoming mental exhaustion.

What can my workplace do to help me overcome burnout?

We have all struggled in one way or another due to COVID-19, but that’s not to say that workplaces should dismiss an employee's mental wellbeing, writing it off as ‘due to coronavirus’, without offering support. In fact, there is plenty that workplaces can do to prevent and overcome mental exhaustion.

In terms of preventative measures, employers should work to avoid having unrealistic expectations of employees. Expecting actions and results to be on par with pre-covid times is not realistic. Businesses need to shift their perspective amid the pandemic and refrain from putting unnecessary stress on employees’ shoulders.

Project professionals, or in fact anyone at risk of burnout, should work with senior management to define their roles and responsibilities. Setting workloads at a manageable level will prevent feelings of drowning, as well as control expectations. Something as simple as open and understanding communication can have great impact. And so, workplaces must open up to recognising and discussing mental wellbeing.

Crafting an open, supportive culture

To truly craft a culture where staff wellbeing is valued, workplaces must act as well as talk. They can do this by being responsive to staff’s needs – just as they were when remote working was first recommended by the government. Flexibility around working hours, shift patterns or making allowances for a mental health day all demonstrate a company values the wellbeing of its employees. As can providing company-wide stress management training.

Workplaces should look to support employees in any way they can. For those suffering from mental exhaustion, professional help such as private healthcare or therapist visits may be something workplaces can offer. However, during tough economic times the stark reality is that benefits like these are the first things to be cut, to the detriment of employee wellbeing and consequently productivity and profitability.

Similarly, the uncertain economic climate may mean companies are not taking on additional recruits, leaving employees stretched and at greater risk of burnout. That is not to say all is lost. Talking to senior staff and HR about your mental wellbeing goes a long way to bringing about positive change. Opening employer’s eyes to where additional support is needed is paramount to driving a better workplace culture.

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