I am a senior project manager in a service organization. I manage client-facing work as well as hundreds of independent contractors.
I recently got behind on my list—the endless small tasks that add up to outstanding service—and I shelved a few items to take care of when I came back from a week’s vacation.
I returned to a debacle with one of our significant internal clients and her handful of potential clients. A whole incident had been escalated to the colleague who was covering for me, then to my boss.
My boss was pretty nice about it but I can tell I have lost her trust. I was disappointed in myself—but more than anything I was really embarrassed. I don’t know what I was thinking. I misread the time frame and the requirements and thought the matter could wait.
Here is the bigger problem: I now have constant anxiety that I might be dropping a ball. I feel like I can never take a vacation again. I have gotten myself into a trap of working all hours and checking email and texts constantly out of fear that I might miss something. My husband and kids are really getting annoyed with me. I feel the stress ratcheting up—like I am losing control of my life. Help!
Dear Losing Control,
I am sorry. I so know the feeling. And so does every other member of PA—“Perfectionists Anonymous.” You really do need to be a perfectionist to be a project manager; it is an impossible job that never ends. You are apparently very good at, and you are now experiencing the dark side of being naturally detail oriented and what I call a control enthusiast.
The bad news is that you are destined to burn out dramatically if you don’t take some significant steps to get yourself back on an even keel. Constant anxiety will take a toll on your health and ultimately will cloud your thinking and make you less effective at your job.
First stop: your boss. Have the hard conversation that starts with your feeling of losing her trust. You actually might be making that up. If you aren’t making it up and you do need to rebuild trust, you need to set clear milestones that the two of you can track. Make it concrete—get the “feeling” out of it. I think it is also important for you to discuss your stress level with your boss. As you get yourself to a better place, you may need help managing your workload—and you will need your boss’s support to do that.
Which brings me to the next step: tell yourself the truth about how much work you can do. Then draw a boundary and do not say yes to more than you can reasonably take on. You may worry that this could put your job in jeopardy, but honestly—most bosses will just keep loading it on until the employee cries Uncle. And, ultimately, if you find that more is expected of you than you can give, it’s time to find another job. You can’t live your life as a total nervous wreck. Life is too short—and too long—for that.
Everything is easier with stress management techniques. There are many methods. Explore them and find one thing you can do to ratchet down the stress. A short walk at lunch time, ten deep breaths three times a day, prayer, a gratitude practice, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, homeopathic remedies. None of this has to take a lot of time, but you have to find something and practice it religiously. This is not optional.
Finally, stop trying to go this alone. Here is a new mantra for you: GET HELP. Ask a colleague to help out when you are overwhelmed with to-do’s. Ask your boss for help. Use your Employee Assistance Program and go get 6 therapy sessions. Talk things over with your spouse, sibling, parent, or best friends. Don’t hide your situation from anyone who cares about you. I guarantee the right kind of help will come your way.
Now take a deep breath. You are going to be okay—but you do need to put your sanity first.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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