It is well known that successful Project Managers, Project Coordinators, and Project or Policy officers have a very particular mindset. Not to list all their prominent qualities, relying on my experience in the NGO sector and getting to know a lot of them, I would say they (we) are passionate inspiring idea pushers, emotionally attached to bringing to life their vision of a better world. Sometimes this job can feel like a never-ending poker game with a constant all-in bet.
<Stay sharp. Connect. Decide. Meet. Stress. Plan. The deadline is coming up. Relax. Execute. Smile. Report. Burnout.>
Trying to find statistics on PM burnout was surprisingly more difficult than expected, considering this is a very present and surely one of the “jobs of the future”. I guess either PMs don’t have time to fill out surveys or this is a not-hot topic.
According to the Matrix Insight done in 2012 (ordered by the EU Commission), the total costs of work-related depression in the EU27 amounted to nearly €620 billion per year whereas absenteeism and presenteeism took the throne with €270 billion. The OSH Pulse Report done in 2022 (carried out on the EU level involving 27 250 people, 16+ employed population of each EU Member State) showed that 46% of respondents across the EU are exposed to severe time pressure or overload of work. Furthermore, 6 in 10 respondents agree that they would feel comfortable speaking to their manager or supervisor about their mental health.
Having a conversation with your manager can be a good thing as it allows you to deal with some issues directly. On the other side, this concerns them too and, even though they might not be able to solve your problems, they can direct you in the right direction. Moreover, it is essential for your manager to know this because burnout has to be dealt with before it happens. Keeping quiet is just going to harm you, your professional and personal life, and eventually the organisation itself.
Why are project managers at high risk of burnout?
Periods of high intensity (let’s say that for us these are application deadlines and reports). Unrealistic expectations (we are PMs, not magicians). Ever-changing plans (when all the risks come knocking at the door). Workaholic mentality combined with the workload (a disaster in the making).
Looking into research and studies done on burnouts (PMI, RGBM, Health organisations like WHO, Universities, and others) the symptoms can include:
- Decrease in productivity
- Indifference or irritability towards the job
- Permanent tiredness
- Loss of enjoyment in work
- Low patience
- Being unconfident
- Poor team relations
- Physical damage
- Taking more days of sick leave
- Doubt in the significance of the work
- Negative thinking patterns
If you recognise some of these (in others or yourself), make sure you deal with them, because burnout is about to happen. So, according to good practices and advice (from the same sources) here are some small tips on how to do that.
- Embrace emotional detaching in crisis (take a break and take a look at the big picture)
- Work in intervals
- Take care of yourself in your private life
- Ask for help from your team
- Celebrate your successes no matter how small you think they are
- Take lunch away from your desk
- Take your holidays and have a good night’s rest
- Create work/home boundaries and execute your right to disconnect
- Talk to your boss
We can all agree that organisations should take care of employee well-being and provide resources and support to prevent burnout. The question is how can NGOs do that? Can we add a section “Team mental health care” in the project application budget?
There is that breaking point that I guess, most PMs face eventually. Do I want a less stressed job? A better-played job? Do I need to focus more on my private life? Do I need to change my career? Questions eventually all of us answer at some point.
And this takes me back to the beginning: “NGO (and other) Project Managers, Coordinators, Project or Policy officers are passionate, inspiring idea pushers, emotionally attached to bringing to life their vision of a better world’’. And that is exactly what we do. Bit by bit. Project by project, participant by participant. That is one impact we can’t measure but rest assured it is there. That is what matters, don’t forget that.
So, I would say to my colleagues, keep on pushing and leave the burnout for… others. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, because only when you take care of yourself can you take care of others. Long-term. And the world needs you around, long-term.