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5 ways to combat project-driven PTSD

January 30, 2020

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

2019 went out with a bang. I found myself, with other members of my team, on the final lap of a six-month marathon client project which demanded a hard-core sprint to the finish line as we went into the holidays. Crossing the finish line was both simultaneously exciting, yet anti-climactic; adrenalized, yet exhausted.

During one of my kick-off-the-new-year coffees with a long-time colleague, we compared notes of how our holidays went. She also had daunting client demands that tethered her to technology on days we would normally have been spending downtime with family. These projects were mission critical to the parties involved. The stakes were high, and the moods were intense. While our project circumstances were very different, we were in the same boat. Work called and we had little choice but to respond and give it our attention.

There was solace in our conversation to know that other people faced dilemmas and demands forcing our work lives to eclipse our personal lives. That’s not to say that it made it “right” — just a tad bit less lonely. We all have periods of time at work where a special project may be long, intense, all-consuming, and big in terms of its consequences to the company, your team, your customers, and/or you personally.

So, what do you do when faced with projects like this? You get through it, right? In the beginning, like a marathon runner, you are excited for the race to start but know that you need to pace yourself. If you come out too hot, you’ll fry out and if you go too slow, you’ll be in the back of the pack. The project, like the marathon course, has hills and valleys where things go well with the wind at your back, and other times you’re slogging the incline. When the marathon project finishes, you’re spent. Totally and completely spent, left wandering around trying to catch your breath, your equilibrium, and frankly, yourself.

Unlike a runner though, where the body recovers and she hungers for the adrenaline rush again, the toll of the marathon work project can be harsh. I look at my teammates and see the wear and tear in their eyes, how they move, and interact. They’re looking for an escape — literally or figuratively — to allow themselves time to recover. Productivity plummets due to fatigue as well as disorientation, having been so focused on the one project that other initiatives, tasks, and responsibilities temporarily fuzz out. They’re on high alert, waiting for the unforeseen to hop out at them.

For example, I reached out to one of them this week to ask a simple, sincere question of “How are you doing?” knowing that her efforts had been intense. Her reply was “Ummm … good. Why? That’s a loaded question.” Her fear was that there was some straggling issue from the project that would dump another load of crisis-like work on her. I don’t blame her. I’ve been there once or twice along the way myself.

I’ve come to recognize this time after a major project as a post-project post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) period. Project-driven PTSD is real, in my humble opinion. While I have no scientific corroboration to support my claim, I’d hazard a guess that you’ve either witnessed it or experienced it yourself. The question is what to do about it? The project needs to get done. What can we do to protect ourselves and our team, so we come out the other side more like the experienced marathon runner wanting to sign up for another race as opposed to the deflated one, running away entirely?

To my mind, there are five, if not more, key steps to take to anticipate and manage project-driven PTSD:

1. Talk about it

When embarking on intense projects, we know that the work will be challenging so let’s be upfront about it. Prepare yourself and your team. Reinforce it along the way. As you and your team hit the lows, acknowledge them and that this is all part of the process. This too shall pass. Actively manage expectations throughout the project and afterward.

2. Teeter the totter

I won’t say “maintain balance.” That would a) sound too much like my mom and b) be the pot calling the kettle black. Rather, safeguard those things that are critical for you to deal with the stress and hold on to your stamina. For example, despite the insane hours put in, rabidly protect your workout time, if you are so inclined, or schedule in 30 minutes to walk around the neighborhood. Commit to having dinner with your family, even if it means excusing yourself afterward to get back to the computer. Figure out what you need to do to manage your stress.

3. Give permission

Give your team members permission to do the same. It demonstrates that you care, want them to survive the experience intact, and recognize that they need it.

4. Appreciate

Demonstrate the verb through your actions.

  • Kind words and good manners go a long way. (Please. Thank you. You’re a big help. Nice work on this task.)
  • Act it. If you use nice words but then turn around and behave like a jerk when something goes wrong, your future kind words will be a thinly veiled dagger that everyone will see through.
  • Recognize that nice words only go so far. Extend yourself in a way that will be meaningful to your teammate to acknowledge and reward their contributions. (It may not be purely financial.)

5. Re-recruit the PTSDed

Re-recruiting is a higher-level form of appreciation blended with acknowledging that the project experience exacts a toll. This sets the stage for a conversation around “what’s next?” For example:

  • Did a team member demonstrate a new competence or capability during the project that warrants further development?
  • Did a team member perform at such a level that they are deserving of a promotion or new role?
  • What did the experience teach them about themselves? About the team and the organization? Did it spark new interests, or did it demonstrate an area that they want to concentrate on in the future? Are there other similar projects they should consider?
  • How can you leverage the experience for a win-win?

Simultaneously, the “what’s next” conversation may need to be more basic. The disorientation and fatigue of project-driven PTSD can leave a person at loose ends, not knowing what they should do next. Help them prioritize and reacclimate to their “day” job.

Every company has its marathon projects that ask more than the normal, routine day job. The way you and your company approach these types of projects says volumes about your culture, ability to recruit and retain talent, and accomplish your goals. How do you actively acknowledge and manage project-driven PTSD? Or do you leave your colleagues to fend for themselves? What best practices have you seen? Let me know. I’m training up for my next run.

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