Managing stress on ERP projects

Kayleigh Brown

Kayleigh Brown is an independent ERP consultant and Mental Health First Aider. She specialises in test management for IFS projects and is studying a diploma course in modern applied psychology.

ERP implementations are challenging, high-pressure projects. There’s no denying that.

But Kayleigh Brown is on a mission to banish unnecessary stress from IFS projects and other ERP implementations.

The independent ERP consultant and Mental Health First Aider explains:

  • What causes stress on software projects
  • The difference between stress and unnecessary stress
  • Why good mental health matters
  • How to spot the signs of stress in your team
  • What you can do to help

Why can ERP projects be stressful and what causes this?

  • Deadlines and targets: there’s a lot of pressure around this. Obviously, projects have dates associated with them and there are often stringent targets to meet that can’t be changed because you must go live by a certain point. And if someone is relying on you for something, that might cause stress because you don’t want to let them down or hold things up.
  • Project setbacks: setbacks in projects are totally normal, but if you’re not used to project work, you might find this difficult. So, a minor setback might feel like the end of the world, when in reality it isn’t. Many people go into a project expecting it to be smooth sailing. It’s important to manage everyone’s expectations from the start that there will be ups and downs.
  • Leadership style: sometimes a more autocratic leadership style can lead to stress, especially when people are new to projects. But I’ve worked with some project managers who have been really good at keeping everyone on an even keel and not inducing stress.
  • Change in work-life balance: these projects can eat into your personal time, especially if you’re still doing your ‘business as usual’ at the same time.

What’s the difference between ‘stress’ and ‘unnecessary stress’?

People’s opinions on this will vary. I think some forms of stress can be quite positive because it motivates you to deal with a challenge.

Temporary stress can be productive, but prolonged stress isn’t. Unnecessary stress is caused by pressures that aren’t conducive to progress, and it’s avoidable. One cause could be poor leadership through bullying, overloading people, bad project planning or not being inclusive. It’s important to make sure everyone feels included and not discriminated against.

Who can be affected?

Everyone! No-one’s safe from stress on projects.

But we all react to stress in different ways. It depends on what’s important to you.

I’ve had to really work on developing my own emotional resilience on projects because it didn’t come naturally to me. But there are people who have never worked on ERP projects before who are naturally more resilient. It’s a mixed bag. However, you can improve your own resilience.

And the type of pressure we face as consultants is different to what a project manager might face.

What are the signs of unnecessary stress to look out for in your team?

Someone might openly say they’re feeling stressed, but if they don’t, there are signs you should look out for, and these can be quite subtle:

  • Are they more withdrawn than usual? Some people are naturally quiet and introverted. The key is to notice if someone is behaving differently to how they normally are. It’s harder to spot this on a video call than face-to-face. But it could be as simple as they’ve stopped turning their camera on for calls. One of the main signs of an imminent mental health episode is not taking care of yourself. So, that person might not want to switch their camera on because they don’t feel good about themself.
  • Are they missing deadlines? They might be so caught up in what’s going on in their head that they can’t be productive and therefore miss deadlines. That can be a vicious circle because they want to meet a deadline because it will make them feel better, but the stress is stopping them.

Remember: it’s easier to spot the signs of stress when you’ve built up relationships with everyone on your team.

Why is it important to manage stress on ERP projects?

Health and wellbeing are extremely important for everyone. On a personal level, having good mental health helps us to feel more balanced, calm and able to cope with life’s challenges.

It’s also beneficial for the project. That’s because each team member plays a role in the software implementation and has therefore built up a bank of useful information. And if someone leaves the project because of stress, they walk away with all that knowledge that’s been transferred to them.

And poor mental health can have a negative impact on productivity. Someone who isn’t suffering from stress is more likely to put in the work and get the job done than someone who is.

Who is responsible for dealing with stress on a project?

We’re all responsible, to a certain degree, for managing our own stress levels and for not inflicting stress on others.

Everyone involved in the project must ensure mental health isn’t a taboo subject. It’s vital to encourage open dialogue and for everyone to know they’re in a safe space and they will be listened to. And that’s the responsibility of all parties, from the vendor to the business and the project team.

What can you do to prevent unnecessary stress?

  • Have a good plan: a clear, well-organised project plan goes a long way towards reducing stress, because everyone on the team knows what they need to do and when.
  • Respectful communication: and patience.
  • Take time out: you might not think taking a break from the project is going to be helpful, especially if you have a tight deadline. But taking time out to do something you enjoy – like going for a walk – can clear your head and stop you from burning out.
  • Regular check-ins: when I’m working with a test team, I often like to ‘check-in’ on a one-to-one to make sure people are ticking over and they’re OK. They know it’s a space they can come to and unload.
  • Accept it’s not personal; it’s business: I’ve struggled with this in the past. I’ve taken criticism personally because I take pride in my work. But taking the personal side out can prevent unnecessary stress.
  • Don’t place unreasonable demands on people’s time: it’s crucial people don’t feel overloaded. This goes back to my point about having a good plan and being organised.

What should you do if you think someone is struggling with their mental health on a project?

If you have a rapport with the person who’s under stress, you could start by simply asking them, “How are you?” You can usually tell if someone isn’t giving you the full story or they don’t want to take the conversation further, and you can close by saying, “I’m here if you need me.” That might be enough to encourage them to open up about how they’re feeling. Perhaps they just need a bit of a rant! I’m a firm believer in the old saying, “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

If you’re still concerned, you should check if the project or the business has any policies relating to mental health.

If you have a Mental Health First Aider on the team, that’s your go-to person to speak to because they’re trained to help with this type of issue. Or you could consider approaching your project manager.

But if it’s a mental health emergency where that person could be a danger to themselves or others, call 999.

What if you have an issue with a leader in your team?

If someone is making you and/or other team members feel inadequate, and if they’re upsetting people, it’s important to flag this up. If you don’t have a Mental Health First Aider to talk to, you can talk to your contracting agency or someone senior in the business who isn’t on the project team.

Any tips for supporting someone with their mental health?

Showing empathy and being relatable often gets better results than just feeling sorry for someone and offering sympathy. Tell them what they’re going through isn’t unusual and they’re not silly for feeling that way.

Or simply let them know you’re there for them. You don’t necessarily have to offer advice.

What is the psychology course you’re studying?

It’s a diploma course in modern applied psychology through Udemy and I’m doing it in my own time. I’m a fanatical academic and am always working on self-improvement.

I’ve been interested in psychology since I was a teenager. I’m fascinated in human behaviour and understanding other people’s perspectives and why they react in a certain way. I’ll be able to use what I learn to support people when I’m consulting on ERP projects.

How can you help as a Mental Health First Aider on ERP projects?

Ideally, I’d like to get into projects early to speak to the people who are on the ground doing the work. I could do an introduction or a seminar to spot the signs of project fatigue and stress.

It would also be good to have this mental health support running all the way through the projects I work on. People can then speak to me, and I can apply what I’ve learned to that situation.

At the top level, I can attend to someone who is having a mental health crisis. I can check if they could be danger to themselves or others, if there’s a risk to life or if there’s a medical emergency. If the situation is serious, I can call 999.

I’ll try to understand how that person is feeling and what their symptoms are. And while I can’t diagnose someone with a condition, I can give support and reassurance.

If I’m satisfied it’s not an emergency, I can signpost them to the right places to get help. There are so many resources available online, like the mental health charity Mind.

Is workplace mental health getting more recognition?

We’re definitely getting better. Mental health is just as important as health and safety at work and occupational health. For example, workplace noise levels are checked so people don’t damage their hearing. So, why not have someone who can check in on workers’ mental health? Because the more we know about it, the better we can deal with it.

We’re maybe not there yet in terms of getting mental health instilled in ERP projects from the start, which is a shame, but we’ll get there!

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