How to Handle Project Stress and Panic

Project stress and panic can be recurring issues in the Project Team. Between rigorous workloads and tight deadlines, team members  must be constantly aware of their stress levels so they don’t set themselves up for burnout. Managing stress is an important skill that allows project teams to reap the rewards of properly-controlled pressure without sacrificing performance or peace of mind.


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Panic, on the other hand, is never a good thing in a center of excellence. When teams panic, they become scattered and inefficient. Unfortunately, high long-term stress levels inevitably lead to panic. When activity loads are heavy and team members aren’t able to pay sufficient attention to planning and control efforts, timelines fall behind schedule and people feel increasingly overwhelmed.


Several strategies can be deployed to help Project Teams avoid lapsing into panic when the pressure mounts, whether it’s because of an emergent problem or because there simply seems to be too much to do. Knowing where to draw the line is key when balancing stress levels.


Positive impacts of stress in the Project Team

Project teams are likely to see benefits when stress exists, as long as the load remains manageable. Everyday stressors often help people focus closely on the most important tasks—they’re able to shut out distractions and more accurately identify priority activities. Procrastinators tend to stay on track when stress is present to prod them forward, rather than allowing tasks to languish.


Maintained at acceptable levels, stress can also provide positive results over the longer term. As team members encounter challenges in new projects, their previous experience with stressful events provide a basis for dealing with similar problems. Using these past pressures as a road map, the team is better equipped to quickly spot where complications began and how they can be fixed. This creates an environment where solutions are effective and more efficiently implemented.


Stress or panic?

Appropriate stress levels vary from one person to another. There are, however, some telltales signs project team leaders can use to determine when stressors have started to pile up and team members are entering the panic zone. It’s at this point progress becomes hindered and the negative impacts of stress—erosion of critical thinking skills and increased worry, just to name a few—begin to snowball out of control.


A handful of questions may be helpful in determining if the project team is working with common stress levels or if panic has set in.


  • Are team members so focused on near-term deadlines that discussions and progress toward important milestones in the later phases of the project’s life-cycle have ceased?


  • Have communication channels dried up within the project team, either between various sub-teams or across the stakeholder and executive groups?


  • Are team members absent from routine project meetings more than they’re present? Even when they attend the scheduled sessions, do they minimize their participation?


  • Is the Project Team robbing resources from future projects to support current activities?


  • When concerns are raised, do team members focus on placing blame rather than finding a solution?


  • Do low-level distractions easily derail progress?


  • Have troubleshooting and problem solving become strictly reactive efforts, rather than proactive?


If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” it’s time to seriously consider how well stressors are being managed within the project team. The above behaviors typically indicate that some, if not most, of the team members have slipped into panic mode. Righting the ship will require fast, targeted action that combines refocusing on priority issues while also putting controls in place to ensure that problems aren’t simply kicked down to the road to create fresh panic later.

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