The building and construction industry is a challenging industry to work in.
RMIT's 2020 submission to the Productivity Commission Mental Health public inquiry highlights that construction workers are a high-risk group for mental ill-health and suicide. There are many contributing factors such as long hours, deadlines, immense pressures to win jobs, accepting unreasonable risks, etc.
Note: I do acknowledge that I'm in a corporate office-based role on the client side. The submission above may or may not reflect my specific role.
I wanted to write this article as a reflection as part of R U OK Day which was on the 9th September 2021.
Here are 6 lessons that I remind myself of in times of difficult situations as a project manager.
1. Focus on what you can control
When you are managing a project it may seem like it is all up to you to deliver the project. It is quite the opposite.
Projects, especially construction projects, are dependent on numerous people. People you manage, people you report to and your clients. And, all the people that they themselves manage and report to. Although you need to use "influence" to deliver outcomes, what they eventually do is out of your control.
Coronavirus, latent conditions, site conditions, approval processes, rules and regulations, weather... these are some examples of where you don’t have control over.
All you can do as a project manager is to try to be on top of the project. Identify risks and have a mitigation plan in place. If you encounter any issues, escalate them through the appropriate channels and highlight the risks and issues to the clients.
2. You can’t change the past - you can only live with your decisions
I’m the type of person who mulls over the past. I get stuck in my regrets. Things I've said or did, whether it was at work or my personal life.
I recently listened to Ricardo Vargas "5 Minute Podcast" episode called“Accountability: We Have to Live With the Decisions We Make”. He reminds us that we all make mistakes whether or not we knew it at the time. What we need to do is learn from the experience and make sure we don’t repeat it in the future.
This is true. I’ve made so many mistakes in the past - sometimes because I was inexperienced but other times were just bad decisions. But, reflecting on those experiences has made me become a better project manager and a better person in general.
As painful as it is, we need to live with our mistakes because it's part of life. Just commit to doing things better in the future.
3. Reframe this difficult situation as an opportunity to grow
The caveat is that if the difficulty is way beyond your capability, it may be too much to handle and won’t be as enjoyable.
But, if the situation is such that it’s “just” difficult enough, then you can try to reframe this experience as an opportunity to grow.
“Growth is the art of doing what you are scared of doing over and over again.”
- @orangebook_ on Twitter
I encourage you to think of a difficult time in the past, how you overcame it and what you took away from the experience.
For me, I experienced a difficult time towards the end of my engineering degree. As part of the graduation requirements, we all had to find internships when all the engineering students from all around Australia were doing the same. I thought I had so many things going for me - I was doing a double degree, my marks were good, and I was involved in many extracurricular activities.
But after applying for many companies I received so many rejections and countless non-responses. Eventually it worked out, but it was extremely difficult at the time. I was angry, stressed, worried, was screaming injustice... but what I eventually realised was my pride was what got the best of me. It was a real humbling experience.
4. Think about what is actually worrying you
A lot of the time, it is not that particular situation that is making you stressed. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves why we are stressed.
I believe that when we get the root of the stress, it all stems from our insecurities.
The situation may be challenging our self-esteem or confidence. But instead of recognizing that it’s more of an internal mental battle we are facing, we become obsessed with the negative self-talk. Or we try to find something to blame - the project, our managers, workplace, clients etc.
When you are stressed, try using a technique called 5 Whys to get to the root of the problem. Using this technique, you'll find out we're stressed because we're scared. Or, because we don't believe we are good enough or appreciated enough.
Confronting and working on these underlying issues are hard... but that's another blog post for another day.
I recommend watching School of Life's Calm video
5. Take a break from work
I’m the type of person who finds it hard to separate work and personal life which makes me exhausted and stressed. Coronavirus, lockdowns, and constantly working at home, have not helped.
I've tried to put in measures to allow me to switch off from work. Such as, having separate phones so that I don’t check my work email during weekends (unless it’s a special situation). I also have taken up a lot more exercise because it does wonders for my mental health.
Try to find measures to separate work from personal life whether it be a technical or physical solution.
6. Be compassionate to others and yourself.
I am the worst critic of myself. Self-compassion for me is quietening the negative self-talk and taking care of my mental health.
It also means not being afraid to switch jobs if it’s affecting my mental health. It also means being brave enough to step outside our comfort zone and explore alternative career paths.
If you're experiencing difficult times, know that you're not alone. People might put on their brave faces on Zoom but know that everyone has their own struggles. If you're feeling emotional, don't worsen the situation by lashing out at others. We need to treat others with kindness and dignity regardless of the situation.
It's OK not to be okay.
I invite you to take a break and reflect on your journey and struggles. Think about what lessons you have learnt in life and what it means to take care of your mental health.