Johann is a very experienced contracts manager at BAM Nuttall, one of Europe's largest construction firms. I got to know Johann at a leadership development programme where he shared his story about stress. The story made such an impression on me that I asked Johann if I could kindly include it in the 2nd edition. I'm very grateful to Johann for his consent. It's probably the most powerful story of the book.
How I learnt to thrive in spite of stress
Twelve years ago I was a project manager in charge of a portfolio of multi-disciplinary design and build projects within the rail industry. Delivery of the projects was spread over a five-year timeframe. The workload was significant and the pressure to develop and implement the schemes was unrelenting. I realised that I was going to struggle and made repeated requests to my line manager and the business unit manager for additional support. These were ignored, leaving me to try and cope on my own. After almost nine months of non-stop work, which included weekends and a lot of late nights, the demands placed on me finally became too much. I collapsed at work with severe chest pain and had to be rushed to hospital where I ended up in the Cardiac High Care unit of my local hospital. I was diagnosed with Pericarditis, which was so severe that fluid had accumulated around my heart. I spent a week in hospital and a further five weeks recuperating. Eventually, my doctors suggested that the stress associated with my work was a likely root cause. The incident served as a wake-up call that work-related stress can be deadly. My employer was made aware of the likely causes for my illness and conducted a number of ‘Return to Work’ interviews with me to explore and understand the factors at play.
As a result of the discussions, my employer instigated a number of changes within the business, including training to recognise warning signs related to stress, regular staff health surveillance and a training programme on how to effectively deal with stress. I was one of the first managers to complete the training and as a result I was able to change my approach to pressures at work and become more resilient. I began to exercise more (working out at the gym, walking and cycling), I made time for the really important things in life such as family, friends and hobbies and I made sure that I got enough sleep. I function at my best with six hours sleep a night and recognise that others probably require more than that. Very importantly I also leant to ‘switch-off’ from work at the end of the day by deciding that my work stops and home-life begins when I pass the last set of traffic lights on my way home. I turn off my mobile phone at 7pm and only turn it back on at 7am. My team is aware and don’t call or email between those hours. In the evening I leave my laptop at the office (or in the boot of my car) and holidays are for my family and I to enjoy – the mobile phone and laptop stay at home and get a rest as well. I also use breathing and relaxation techniques to help me get to sleep. This has been very successful and sleepless nights are thankfully a rarity.
Today I lead projects that are far bigger and more complex than the ones I managed twelve years ago, but I experience them as less stressful. When I meet people who are in a similar situation to the one I was in, my advice is to create space for themselves. By that I mean that they need to slow the pace of their activity, become more deliberate in what they do and what they choose to focus on. The urge is to try and resolve every problem, attend to every need and work yourself out of whatever predicament you are in. Sometimes that works out, but success comes at a significant personal cost and it is ultimately not a sustainable approach for dealing with stressful situations on your projects. Use your team for support and allow them to help you carry the load. Also, do not be afraid to admit that you need help from time to time. Speak to your line manager, explain your situation and get the help you need.