Episode 194 – Strategic Resilience: The Best Defense Against Burnout

Episode #194
Original Air Date: 02.05.2024

38 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Marie-Helene (MH) Pelletier

Burnout and resilience. How can we move beyond viewing resilience as a mere buzzword and dispel the notion that it involves only toughing it out or maintaining a positive attitude? Author of The Resilience Plan: A Strategic Approach to Optimizing Your Work Performance and Mental Health, Dr. Marie-Helene (MH) Pelletier discusses the necessity of adopting a strategic approach to resilience by integrating psychology and strategy.

Project managers face high-stress environments, and this conversation explores balancing project success with avoiding burnout. Listen in to learn about creating a plan for achieving successful outcomes as MH discusses burnout, raises awareness about early signs, and advocates for reflection and intervention to boost resilience. Additionally, MH addresses the broader team perspective, by exploring how project managers can foster an environment that helps the entire team avoid burnout and enhance resilience.

Dr. Marie-Helene Pelletier, better known to her colleagues as “MH” is a psychologist with a systems mind – and has both a PhD and an MBA. She has over 20 years of experience as a practicing psychologist and as a senior leader in the corporate, insurance, governance and health care sectors. MH’s unique talent is bringing together workplace and psychology – translating concepts into “take- aways” that listeners can put into action the minute they finish the episode.


Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...most project managers, would not be in a situation where on the daily basis have to explore how everyone’s feeling about everything, obviously.  But they’re also managing a project, managing people who are within this project, and managing themselves supporting this project.  So the more we can incorporate in our observations, the very normal expected demands and expected impacts that these may have on all of us as we navigate this timeline, the more we can, again, proactively manage and be prepared to reactively manage when any one of us, ...feels like we need to hit the pause button."

- MH Pelletier

"...concentration does not just fluctuate for the sake of it.  It usually will go down when our resources are so tapped in other areas that it starts to show in concentration, ability to make decisions, sometimes impatience, even other things.  And that’s another thing we tend to do.  We tend to ignore it."

- MH Pelletier

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. Burnout and resilience. How can we move beyond viewing resilience as a buzzword and dispel the notion that it involves only toughing it out or maintaining a positive attitude? Balancing project success with avoiding burnout is a real challenge in high-stress environments Dr. Marie-Helene (MH) Pelletier discusses the necessity of adopting a strategic approach to resilience by integrating psychology and strategy.

Table of Contents

02:39 … Why Resilience Is Important
03:45 … Do We “Tough it Out”?
04:57 … If the Context is Changing, Change Your Approach
08:23 … What “The Resilience Plan” Offers
11:56 … Helix Shape Resilience Plan Model
13:28 … Being Strategic about Resilience
15:11 … Creating a Resilience Plan
19:04 … Kevin and Kyle
20:10 … Burnout
24:10 … Can Resilience Cause Burnout?
28:20 … Striking a Balance
31:20 … Taking Care of Yourself
34:15 … Team Resilience
37:30 … Contact MH
38:07 … Closing

MH PELLETIER:  …most project managers, would not be in a situation where on the daily basis have to explore how everyone’s feeling about everything, obviously.  But they’re also managing a project, managing people who are within this project, and managing themselves supporting this project.  So the more we can incorporate in our observations, the very normal expected demands and expected impacts that these may have on all of us as we navigate this timeline, the more we can, again, proactively manage and be prepared to reactively manage when any one of us, to your point, feels like we need to hit the pause button. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome, resilient leaders, to a special edition of Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Stay tuned with us today for a conversation that will reshape the way you approach challenges in project management.

I’m Wendy Grounds.  My co-host, who is the expert in the arena of project management, is Bill Yates; and joining us is our unflappable sound guy, Danny Brewer.  Today we’re delving into a topic that’s the bedrock of success in the face of adversity:  resilience.  In the high stakes arena of project management, where challenges loom around every corner, resilience isn’t just a buzzword, it’s actually the secret sauce that turns your setbacks into stepping stones.  If you are navigating a stormy project or just seeking to fortify your professional resilience, this episode is your compass to success because in project management, the resilient not only survive, but thrive.

We’re excited to introduce our guest, who is a true champion in the realm of resilient project leadership, Marie-Hélène Pelletier.

BILL YATES:  Yes, we are so fortunate to have her joining us as our guest.  And she goes by MH, which is appropriate.  It’s a handy reference to mental health.  The short form really is a great fit there.  We love that.  So you’ll hear us refer to our guest as MH.  She’s a psychologist with a systems mind.  She has both a PhD and an MBA.  She has over 20 years of experience as a practicing psychologist and as a senior leader in the corporate insurance, governance, and healthcare sectors.  MH’s unique talent is bringing together workplace and psychology, translating concepts into key takeaways that listeners can put into action the minute they finish the episode. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yes, definitely.  There are many takeaways from this conversation, so let’s get talking.

Hi, MH.  Welcome to Manage This.

MH PELLETIER:  I’m thrilled to be here.

Why Resilience Is Important

WENDY GROUNDS:  We really appreciate you being with us.  You released “The Resilience Plan.”  It’s a strategic approach to optimizing your work performance and mental health.  Why is resilience so important?  Why does it matter to you?

MH PELLETIER:  Great question, and let me provide a definition because we hear the word, we use the word.  What is mostly the definition, even if we go to literature?  One that most people go with is our ability to go through adversity and grow, come out even stronger.  And by “adversity” here, we mean the acute events, but also chronic demands, like a pandemic, for example.  So we’ve heard a lot about it, we know the kinds of things that would help, and most of us are struggling to implement them.  Yet we know from research that, if we did, we would have a chance to more proactively influence the course of how things will go for us and for people we work with.  So it’s a great opportunity, and that’s why I think it’s so important.

Do We “Tough it Out”?

BILL YATES:  Sometimes people think you either have to tough it out or stay positive when it comes to resilience.  What is your view on this?

MH PELLETIER:  I would say most professionals and leaders at one point or another probably think this way.  And there are good reasons.  It’s actually not helpful, but why do we think this?  We think this because, especially early in our careers, without us realizing it, it just appeared that we could just keep going, not pay specific attention.  It felt like we were naturally like this.  Often people even told us, “Oh, you’re so resilient,” that you just get to a point where you think it’s part of you.

So because you think it’s part of you, you just think, put your head down, keep going, stay positive, and that’s all going to be fine.  That’s how we get to think about it this way.  The thing is, resilience is actually not a personality trait.  It’s something at times will be higher, at times will be lower, which means on the very positive side that we can influence it; right?  And we actually should because, if we don’t, and we keep taking from that pool of resilience, well, it will go down just like any other resource.

If the Context is Changing, Change Your Approach

BILL YATES:  This point really hit home with me early in your book.  You shared a very personal experience of you and your husband were hiking, you overcame an obstacle, and then you faced the same obstacle, the river, a few days later.  And your reserves were low.  You were dehydrated.  You were tired.  I think many of us can relate to that in life and in work.  And then this challenge became something that almost got the best of you.  And that was a real eye-opener for me and grabbed my attention.  Share a bit about that.

MH PELLETIER:  Yes, I think each of us have gone through something like this.  And you’re right; this situation for me is in a mountaineering situation and not a work situation.  However, it was a fairly significant experience for me.  And the learning I got from it was a mountaineering learning.  If the context is changing, change your approach, MH, which sounds very obvious.  And but then, as I worked with professionals and leaders in my coaching work and in my speaking, I thought, look at the applicability of this in our work.

We have our ways of dealing with challenges.  The context changes.  We are facing more unexpected, larger events.  And yet we keep going the same approach, which – and literally people will come sometimes to their conversations with me and say, “MH, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  I’ve always responded this way.  It has always worked.  What’s my problem now that it’s not working?”  And often the key is in the context that has changed.  And therefore the approach needs to change.  We need to be adaptable.

BILL YATES:  I thought of a personal experience when I was reflecting on this.  One time I was at the gym, the YMCA, doing a normal workout like I would typically do.  This time I think I pushed a little bit harder than normal.  And I finished my workout, went back into the locker room to retrieve my things, and I could not remember the combination to my lock.  So this was a lock combination that I’ve known for years.  And I’ve been in that same situation over and over and over and was able to remember three numbers. 

But for the life of me, for five minutes, I could not remember the combination.  And I was embarrassed; and I was a bit, you know, taken aback by it because this is something that I, you know, I do this all the time.  But again, conditions had changed; and, poof, that information, my ability to handle the situation was gone.

MH PELLETIER:  Exactly.  And this is a great example.  I mean, that exact thing has happened for many of us, or something similar.  And often when these things happen, we deal with it quickly.  And at the same time, these are really good warning signs to pay attention to.  Quite possibly in this moment, your concentration was not as high as usual.  And concentration does not just fluctuate for the sake of it.  It usually will go down when our resources are so tapped in other areas that it starts to show in concentration, ability to make decisions, sometimes impatience, even other things.  And that’s another thing we tend to do.  We tend to ignore it.  And part of what I’m saying in the book is unh-unh, let’s pay attention to these things early, proactively.

What “The Resilience Plan” Offers

WENDY GROUNDS:  So we’re excited that your book is going live, “The Resilience Plan.”  What does this offer that’s going to help our audience?  You know, sometimes resilience just becomes like a buzzword.  We all hear about it.  We talk about it.  What are you offering that is really going to help people to improve?

MH PELLETIER:  Great question.  And that’s true.  We’ve heard this word. Like we said, it’s not because we’ve heard it that we’re better at it.  And a fair bit of people I work with actually are project managers.  And they’re wonderful at their, you know, their business thinking, their operational thinking, their organizational sense, all of this.  I have a special place in my heart – seriously, for real, I’m not just saying this to you – for project managers.  I’ve been that leader that works with a project manager who wants a million things done now.  And project manager calmly looks at me and says, “I’m going to take this back and get back to you with an adjusted schedule.”  And each time I’m like, “Agh, that’s not what I want.”  But still project manager, super calm, super nice.

I know it’s not always calm in the background.  But in the presentation here it was.  And I literally came with the idea of this book working with professionals and leaders, some of them project managers, other leaders, others entrepreneurs, others high-level professionals who are brilliant at what they do.  But then that resilience is getting to be a bit of a challenge.  And the way it all emerged is, as I was giving an analogy to these people – and I used it more and more, it became the book – I used a business analogy.  Because they would come to me and say, “MH, seriously, I’ve always been resilient.  Why am I not now?  What’s my problem?  It shouldn’t be that complicated.”

And then I’d say, “If we were in a business here, and we were launching a new something, a new project, a new service, a new product, a new anything, would we just have this idea and do it?  Or we would have this idea and learn who else is providing this in the market.  How much are they charging for it?  Who is paying for it?  What trends in the future might influence the demand for this?”  We would do all this.  We would learn about the context.  And then that would make the project, the product, the new service launch in a more successful way.  Same thing here.

So, yes, we want to increase our resilience.  Most people trust the research.  If we could have a magical wand and say, you know, “Boost my resilience by a million percent,” we would take it.  Yet it’s hard to make it happen.  And part of what makes it possible is if we step back in the same way and learn about our realistic, personal, customized context, and then create a plan that corresponds to it, then we can launch with success and see the results.  So that’s how the idea came.

So the book brings basically psychology and strategy together, same concepts that we know from strategy, all I know and we know from research and best practice in psychology, and creates in very doable exercises – they do literally take minutes.  It’s either five or 10 minutes, usually.  I know everyone, no one has time, everyone’s busy.  If you have a long flight, I usually say you can buy this book at the beginning, get through it, and get out with your plan, seriously.  So it’s doable.  I understand my audience very much.  I know I’m part of it, too.  So that’s how the idea came.

Helix Shape Resilience Plan Model

BILL YATES:  One follow-up question I have about the resilience plan model is your choice of a helix shape, the DNA model, the helix shape.  Talk to us about that because I found that intriguing when I was reading through your book.

MH PELLETIER:  Well, one of the things that, as you look at ways to convey your message, you look at words, you look at stories, and you look sometimes at visuals.  And I was looking just to see if I could find something that would represent my ideas. Then I ran into the double helix, the DNA that we’ve all seen.  Right?  We see the two strands and then the, like, rungs on the ladder.  And I was like, “Okay, wait a second.  It works.”  Because number one, it’s unique to each of us.  Number two, this is a shape that plants will use in nature to make themselves even stronger.  And then number three, the two sides of the ladder work very much together.

And in my model I talk about the importance of looking at both our professional demands and our personal demands.  Even if our objective is a work one, the reality is that the whole thing follows into us, the one person over here.  So we can’t ignore what’s happening on the personal side.  It all needs to be considered.  And then the rungs, there are usually four bases there in the DNA, corresponded really well to my looking at your values, your sources of supply and demand, your context, and then creating your strategic plan.  So these are the ways in which it just seemed to come together in a clear, simple way that connects many of the ideas together.

Being Strategic about Resilience

WENDY GROUNDS:  Why is it important to be so strategic about our resilience?

MH PELLETIER:  The strategic aspect is central.  And thank you for pointing to this because, when in business we’re being strategic, it’s because we’ve looked at the overall context, and we’ve created a plan.  So we’re proactive with it.  It will have strategic pillars and tactics or actions that will also evolve over time.  It will guide our choices where we’re investing and where we’re not.  And then we’ll evaluate over time how that’s going, probably evolve the strategic plan, and that’s how we’ll proceed.

And so on the resilience front, same thing.  There may be things that you two and I were doing 10 years ago that worked very well to sustain and even increase our resilience that in the current context need to be modified or actually need to be pushed aside, and something else needs to come in because of how things are now.  So it’s very much alive.  It needs to evolve, to change over time.  And people do it.  I’ve had someone come to one of my early, early book workshops where I was testing the ideas of the book.  And so she created her plan, implemented it.  She actually found herself in an actual workshop that her employer had brought me in to do with all their leaders.  So she was there again.

But then she decided to, you know, really avail herself to the full process again.  She shared with me after how it was fantastic for her to see how her plan of four months ago had now been implemented, and she was ready for a new one.  She created the new one, now moves forward with this one, just illustrating the very dynamic element of being strategic about it.

Creating a Resilience Plan

BILL YATES:  MH, this is powerful, and I feel like we’ve been teasing the audience just a little bit.  Let’s get down to the tactics, the brass tacks of how do we create a resilience plan?  Walk us through some steps.

MH PELLETIER:  So there would be an element of reflection first, and I often recommend doing it in writing just so the mind does not spin in many directions.  And so elements of revisiting our personal values, professional and personal life, all of our values.  Then visiting the demands and supplies that we’re facing right now, just so we are clear on this.  And I can explain more if we wish, but that’s part of it.  Then looking at what’s our current context, much like we do in business with a SWOT analysis, looking at our source of strengths with challenging internally, the opportunities, and the threats in the external context.

And then, to your question, we write the plan.  Similarly to how in business we would say, literally, if you visualize this top of the page, you would have your goal, in this case, “Increase My Resilience.”  Then you would have three columns, literally three strategic pillars.  So one key direction, second one, third one.  And then you would have tactics or actions under each.  So let’s say each of us here, let’s say we’re just inventing someone who is a project manager, who values doing fabulous work, gives themselves to work a lot, like we know sometimes project managers do, especially in certain phases.  They also enjoy physical activity.  They enjoy spending time with family and friends.  And they have zero time for it.

So they know they want to increase their resilience.  So what they might say, for example, is, okay, knowing my values, which I touched on, knowing the types of demands I’m facing, the very little supply I’m getting, my overall context, I may decide that one of my pillars is going to be my physical health.  And then we want actions that are very realistic for me.  If I have done zero exercise for the past three months, we are not going to write five times a week, half an hour.  Not going to happen; right?

So then we might say, okay, I’m going to, before eating my lunch or before eating dinner, so something that already exists in your schedule, I will step out for a five-minute walk, alarm on my phone after two and a half minutes.  So I’m walking, alarm rings, turn around, come back, five minutes.  Everyone has five minutes.  You just have to push yourself, but it’s doable.  So that would be one action you put here.

You may put another action, knowing the value of meditation.  You’ve never done it, or you’ve done it once, but it didn’t stick.  Maybe you’re also going to have a one-minute deep breathing once a week on a Monday morning or the Sunday night.  It’s very short, and it’s not going to change everything, but it will get you on the path of taking action.  So that’s what could be under this pillar.  There would be another pillar called “Boundaries” with actions there.  There may be another pillar that’s called either “Family” or “Social” with actions there.  Does that give you an idea?  That’s how the plan would look like, and then that’s how personal it would be to each of us.

BILL YATES:  I love this MH, and it reminds me, I read “Atomic Habits” recently, and this idea of stacking habits, you know, taking something like for me, a normal part of my life is to eat.  I love to eat lunch.  I love to eat dinner. And I love to eat between lunch and dinner.  But to your point, you know, take dinner.  Okay, that’s a habit.  We’re going to have dinner in this timeframe.  Before I go to dinner, let me stack a healthy habit on that.  And that’s a short walk.  That’s a great example.

MH PELLETIER:  Yes.  Another pairing that is probably a good one is “Mind over Mood”, which is a bit more on the psychology side of things, but also very practical.  And it has exercises in it.  Doesn’t need to be read, you know, front to end and that kind of thing.  And so another one to consider.

Kevin and Kyle

KEVIN RONEY: How do Gen Z-ers solve problems? ………..They Google them, of course!

KYLE CROWE: I like to call it a Tech-Savvy Approach!  Do you know that by 2025 Millennials are expected to make up the majority of the global workforce? However, many preconceived notions still associated with younger generations jeopardize good working relationships.

KEVIN RONEY: Individual preferences can vary within each generation, so it’s important to get to know your team members as individuals. By creating an inclusive and supportive environment that respects values and preferences, you can effectively manage and lead millennials and Gen Z in the workplace.

KYLE CROWE: If you manage team members who belong to younger generations, Crystal Kadakia, a two-time TEDx speaker and best-selling author, offers a course through Velociteach that teaches how to rethink traditional ways of working by taking on a more collaborative approach.

KEVIN RONEY: Her course, MANAGING MILLENNIALS & GEN Z: DEMYSTIFYING AND ENGAGING MODERN TALENT takes a closer look at each generation and addresses the most common stereotypes of Millennials. If you are struggling to understand what motivates your team and you want to build more effective relationships, you should check it out!


WENDY GROUNDS:  MH, how would you define burnout?

MH PELLETIER:  Great question.  And because, like so many words, we use them all the time, and it means different things.  So let’s start with there is an actual definition from the World Health Organization. Burnout involves three main characteristics.  One we’re very familiar with.  We’re exhausted.  And often we equate this with burnout.  It’s one part of it.

The second characteristic is cynicism.  So we’ve lost hope in anything getting ever better.  And the third one, impact on our performance.  So that’s the definition.  Key thing to know is that burnout is not a diagnosis, but it does lead to mental health diagnosis like depression or anxiety, often both together; and also some diagnosis on the physical health side of things, high blood pressure, for example, and other things.

And the other piece I would say is, even if we’re experiencing only one of these – and they don’t come in this order, we can start anywhere – burnout is not something that appears suddenly.  It builds over time, which means we again have a chance to catch it, if we listen to signs a bit earlier.  Before being exhausted over here, we’re overextended, probably like every one of your project managers listening to this.  Second, before being on the cynicism side, we’re getting less engaged.  And before making significant impact on the quality of our work, more things are falling through the cracks.

But we all know when it’s unusual for us, when we’ve sent the wrong proposal to the wrong client, you know, we’ve done things that are now outside of the falling through the cracks and now in the category of, oh, this is going to affect our work, affect my brand even; right?  That’s not how I work in general.  We want to pay attention to it because these are signs.  And many things can be done, but earlier is always better.

BILL YATES:  MH, I found some of these signals very relatable.  I thought back to past projects that I’d worked on, and either me personally or team members where I saw signs of lower energy, loss of passion, suddenly I don’t care about the customer like I did a couple of weeks ago because I’m exhausted, disengaged.  Even, you know, to your point, suddenly I can’t remember things that I used to, or I’m making mistakes with emails or with communication that I don’t normally make.  And I think that just raising that awareness for me and for my team to think, okay, timeout, hit the pause button, let’s reflect on this and see what’s going on.  Am I along that path headed towards burnout?  And some of these are the early signs.  So I found that incredibly helpful for you to raise the awareness on that.

MH PELLETIER:  Thank you for connecting it with your own experience because this is something that, for ourselves, the more we recognize it, the better.  The more we actually say these things, just like you said it, to colleagues, whether we’re the leader of a team or a person on the team, we’re all influencing it.  And the more we share these kinds of observations, which the way you did it is perfect, very factual, very observational, very normalizing.  And that’s sometimes what is tricky.

I mean, most of us, and certainly most project managers, would not be in a situation where on the daily basis have to explore how everyone’s feeling about everything, obviously.  But they’re also managing a project, managing people who are within this project, and managing themselves supporting this project.  So the more we can incorporate in our observations, the very normal expected demands and expected impacts that these may have on all of us as we navigate this timeline, the more we can, again, proactively manage and be prepared to reactively manage when any one of us, to your point, feels like we need to hit the pause button.  Very important.

Can Resilience Cause Burnout?

WENDY GROUNDS:  If someone is pushing themselves to be resilient, can that cause burnout?  Can that actually be detrimental?

MH PELLETIER:  Really good question.  Because, I mean, all your questions are fantastic, really.  You know what you’re talking about.  And this connects with an analogy that more and more authors on burnout have, this idea that, remember those coal mines where to ensure safety of miners going down, they would send the canary.  If canary comes back, okay, the air is safe enough for people to go.  And the equivalent in this analogy to your question is, okay, are we talking about just making the bird stronger, so even if it’s toxic, bird still comes back and keeps going.

So what I love about this analogy is that it does remind us of the dynamic nature of burnout in the workplace that it does not reside just in the individual.  It does not reside just in the context.  It’s often the relationship between both.  So that’s a very important component.  What I don’t love about this analogy is that we’re not birds.  We have more agency than birds going in there.  But it’s a good question if we’re ignoring the signs, and we’re just putting our head down, saying “I’m going to keep going no matter what, I’m going to be resilient,” and telling ourselves this as if we could override our health and just decide to be resilient.  Then yes, we will likely drive ourselves to some kind of drain, possible burnout, possible other things.  But it’s not going well.

So no, it won’t do this because, if we’re truly looking at our actual resilience, go through adversity, come out even stronger.  And especially if we’re looking at it in a realistic context of what demands we’re facing, my values, my context, the whole thing, then I will increase my resilience, and it will be realistic and healthy for me. 

Meaning, if I realize that this context is providing an amount of demand that is absolutely impossible for any human or certainly not me to manage, and if I realize also it’s impossible for me to influence it, impossible for me to protect myself from it, impossible to manage it one way or the other, then my increased resilience will help me make decisions.  Am I staying here?  And if I am staying, how can I protect myself?  Is it actually possible for me to stay?  How long am I going to stay?  What am I planning?

So no, it’s not going to lead to increasing at all costs.  It would actually not be the definition of resilience.  So sometimes people think this either because they’re a bit on the path of thinking it’s just something I push through, either that or it’s the message they’re getting from their employer who is saying, let’s build your resilience so we can keep piling on you.  Huh? 

And in the book, I talk a bit about this, that you’re still the decision maker on what makes sense here.  Like even sometimes someone was sharing with me how their CEO had come to everyone and had said something like, everyone, get ready.  This amount of pressure is only a start.  It’s going to keep like this for at least the next two or three years.  Some of you will make it; some of you will not.  We’re going to keep going with those who can.

And then the person was asking, what do we do with this?  And my response was, on one hand, proactively sharing what we see is coming is appropriate, logical and helpful.  But then we need to help people.  We’re human here.  Otherwise it’d be like saying, “Okay, we’re all going to go outside.  It’s minus a hundred, go.”  Some of us will survive.  We’re going to need the North Face jacket.  We’re going to need minus a hundred boots.  And we’re going to need shelters along the way to get there.  If we have these things, we might make it.  But if we just say, this is how it is, go, we may lose more people than we think.  And we don’t need that.  It’s hard to find great talent.

Striking a Balance

BILL YATES:  I really appreciate your callout to project managers in the book.  There’s a section where you talk about, you know, the supply and demand, and how this is so natural for project managers, and how it plays into this whole idea of resilience and avoiding burnout.  That’s great.  As you know, many projects lead to high-stress environments.  How can project managers strike a balance between pushing for project success and avoiding burnout or overextending themselves?

MH PELLETIER:  Yes.  Well, I often actually avoid the word “balance”. I mean, sometimes the levels of demands are so high that I actually don’t think there’s enough hours in the day to build enough supply to actually match it.  So how do we manage the flow?  How do we manage, you know, how we navigate this?  Number one, we want to keep in mind, that’s going to make us stronger to acknowledge this.  We cannot 100% avoid burnout.  It’s there.  It’s a possibility for all of us at all times, even if it has never hit you before, and you’re fairly confident it may never hit you.

Still, we cannot predict the future.  We’re all human.  And given enough demands, it could be any of us.  And the importance of this is fairly high because then if we think of it this way, then early on we’re watching.  We’re not just waiting to experience signs at the nine out of 10.  We’re looking at things early.  So I’ll give you some of my observations from the outside.  I’m not myself a project manager, but to give you some observations based on conversations I’ve had with them.  I know of their fabulous work.  I would say add a people KPI early to your other KPIs.  So you’re measuring all kinds of things, deliverables, operational, you’ve got all this.

My suggestion is take five minutes as a project manager – early on ideally, but if not, wherever you are right now – to look at if you were to predict when it’s going to be tougher for you, when is it going to be?  Now, you could also do this for people involved in the project. But let’s stay focused on you as a project manager right now.  You’ve done this before.  You know yourself.  You know the group you’re working with can start figuring things out.  Identify proactively when will the pain points happen.  So you can build a buffer before.

To give a completely different analogy, but sometimes physicians, for example, will have to not sleep for 24 hours, it’s just the way it is.  Not ideal.  Hopefully it will evolve.  At times that’s the case.  Well, then, it’s not they just maintain their usual sleep habits and oh, well, it is now I’ve got 24 hours I need to stay awake.  No, we build sleep back up earlier. So that you get there still very demanding and very hard, but it’s a bit better.  We’ve built something.  So similarly here, you are excellent at planning.  Add that angle to your planning.

Taking Care of Yourself

BILL YATES:  MH, this is such helpful advice.  There are behavioral strategies that you touch on.  They’re blocking and tackling.  These are basics that we have to continue to practice to make sure that we’re executing them properly.  And you talk about the importance of physical activity, nutrition, and sleep when it comes to avoiding burnout.  Can you just shout that from the mountaintop one more time?

MH PELLETIER:  When we’re looking at the research on what will impact resilience, what will mitigate risks of burnout, there are many variables.  But literally, if resilience was a mathematical equation, four variables here would account for most of the variance right here.  And we’ve heard them, but I’ll say them because they’re as critical as what you do for your physical health.  You’re making sure you’re drinking water.  You’re making sure to eat vegetables, for example.  I would count these four things the same way.

So number one, physical activity, three types:  cardio, strength training, and meditative type activity.  And if you do none of this right now, start with one minute.  Anything is better than nothing, always.  Okay, so that’s the physical type.  Then nutrition, the impact of our nutrition on our psychological health is massive.  It’s not just one study anymore.  It’s body of research.  We’re going to see even more over the next few years.  That’s a key element.

The third one is sleep.  We do want seven to eight hours ideally.  We can talk more about it, but bottom line is, yes, sleep is critical.  It’s like the reset to the computer that you need to do from time to time that helps everything run better.  The fourth one is interpersonal relationships.  All you need is, is there someone you enjoy spending time with?  Be with that person without your phone in your hands.  These moments, treat them like you treat an appointment with a specialist physician that you’ve been waiting for for six months.  We know it’s very important.  It’s one of the key four variables.

But here’s what happens.  Let’s say we finally decide to schedule a lunch with a friend.  We’ve not done this for three months because the schedule has been impossible, but now we’ve scheduled it, and it looks good right now.  We’re two weeks in advance.  We’re fairly – we’re confident.  And then two or three days before, everything is extremely full, we need that hour and a half, and we’re canceling.  And what I’m saying, what the research is saying, treat this like an appointment with a specialist physician that you’ve been waiting for for six months.  You would not cancel it.  You would figure out your work situation, and you would go.  Same thing.

And here’s the amazing thing.  I would actually challenge any of us to implement this more often because here’s the learning that I 100% heard from people doing this.  Everything still worked out.  Everything still worked out.  We managed to figure out the work thing.  Yeah, that time was taken out of the schedule.  And then we made it.  And then we kept this moment that we know from research makes the difference.

Team Resilience

WENDY GROUNDS:  We’ve been talking about resilience for the project manager or the leader or just the individual.  Now, how does it look for the whole team?  How can a project manager or project leader build that environment in their team where their team can avoid burnout and build up their resistance?

MH PELLETIER:  Yes.  I would say, as project manager here, we need to be realistic that you don’t have full influence on everyone on the team, on the leader of the team.  They may or may not see this as valuable and something they want to support from their leadership perspective.  The team already has a culture that is well beyond you changing everything in just how you’re going to be as a project manager.  So we want to be realistic with this.

That being said, yes, the project manager can absolutely have an influence.  Examples of how this influence can come.  One is back to what we were saying earlier, throwing in some of your observations of when the team might feel it even more.  We’re looking at this next six months.  Here are, from my perspective as project manager, the moments where I think it may be toughest for the team, and how can you.  Then you can leave it with them.  You’re not in charge of all of this, but you’re bringing it to them.  The same way you bring sometimes a demand that now needs to be fitted in a choice they have of what’s going to come first or second.  Where are we going to push? Because now you’ve asked for this. 

Use that skill to say, in my experience, there are moments in this project where people will be exhausted.  Here are the three moments for your consideration as a team, for your consideration as leader to support proactively, and happy to talk more about it, or you leave it with them.

Another way you can support it is by sharing how you take care of your own resilience in general.  I know myself, I make sure that I know my moments, and I buffer for them.  I will build even more of my resilience to make sure I have my fullest availability, brain, for these moments.  That may be a way.  Another way is to implement any of the behaviors we would all implement, whether we’re a leader or a member of a team, to increase psychological safety.  So the comfort that each of us can have to bring different perspectives, which we need for successful projects.

So as a project manager, it may be as simple as how you respond when someone made a mistake, when someone missed a deadline day or whatever; and how, yes, you need to manage the situation, you need to point to it. And adding the people angle, you can say exactly that sentence, “And we will learn from this.”  So now what you’ve done, this suggests that you’re using a growth mindset.  Yes, we need to manage this thing, and we will learn from this.  So now you’re contributing to a culture where, of course, no one connected with any of us has made any mistake.  It’s hard to bring it up.  It’s not that we brace for it, but it will happen.  And so how do we respond when it happens?  That’s the opportunities you have as project manager to contribute to that culture.

Contact MH

WENDY GROUNDS:  MH, it’s been wonderful talking with you.  If our listeners want to get in touch with you, where should they go?

MH PELLETIER:  You can go to TheResiliencePlan.com, name of my book.  It will bring you to everything else that I do.  And always inviting people to connect with me on LinkedIn, sharing your thoughts about this conversation.  I personally very much enjoyed it.  It was great speaking with both of you.

BILL YATES:  MH, thank you so much.  You’re raising awareness on such an important aspect for anybody who leads a team, especially for project teams and project managers.  And you’ve helped us communicate that to our listeners.  So appreciate that.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  You have just earned your PDUs, your Professional Development Units, toward recertifications by listening to this podcast.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com.  Choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.  Thank you for joining us.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

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