Mike Belch

Written by: Mike Belch

Mike Belch

Associate Director

Time to Talk: Mental health in projects and programmes

  • February 2019
  • 5 minutes

Presenting at an Association for Project Management (APM) PMO event which took place during the week of Time to Talk Day, I felt it an appropriate time to look at mental health in the projects and programmes field. The event was aimed at Project/Programme Management Office (PMO) practitioners, who the APM define as people who enable, support and ensure the management of change in organisations. My premise was a simple one – PMOs work across multiple teams of people delivering projects and programmes in what is typically a high pressure environment. As such, they could be well placed to identify and offer support to those who might be suffering mental health issues.

According to one Royal College of Psychiatry report, one in four people will fight a mental health condition in any one year. One sixth of the UK population suffer symptoms such as sleep problems, fatigue, irritability and worry, which although themselves don’t constitute a formal diagnosable mental health condition, may affect their ability to work effectively. A further sixth have a diagnosable condition that would require treatment were they to consult a health professional. That’s a potential third of the workforce who may not be able to perform to their full potential.

Recent figures put the cost of mental health issues to the UK economy between £74 billion and £99 billion, the bulk of which is attributable to employer costs and lost productivity. Presenteeism – lost productivity resulting from employees coming to work ill and performing below par – appears to be a major issue. The stigma of having a mental health condition, or fear of revealing it to a manager or employer meant that 60 per cent of employees with a mental health condition said that they would always come to work, compared with just 27 per cent of employees with a physical condition. It was estimated in 2007 that the cost to UK employers of this mental health presenteeism was £15.1 billion, nearly double that of the £8.4 billion impact of absenteeism. Only half of people who have experienced a mental health issue in their current job have disclosed this to their employer – potentially because of negative attitudes from some employers.

Charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have been at the forefront of recent efforts to engage with employers and change attitudes to mental health. One initiative supported by both charities is Time to Change, a growing social movement working to change the way we all think and act about mental health problems. Employers, including RSM, are fighting discrimination and realising the need to provide an environment where employees feel able to talk to colleagues and managers about their mental health challenges. These changing attitudes and wellbeing programmes that many employers are now putting in place are a good start, but what else can be done?

How could a PMO help?

Projects and programmes can be high pressure environments. There is, by rights, a need to deliver outcomes and benefits within a prescribed time and cost envelope, but the focus on this can be relentless. Project and programme managers and their teams are subject to intense scrutiny from their sponsors, the PMO and their stakeholders. There can sometimes be a requirement to report progress weekly, and just as the act of observation has a devastating effect on Schrödinger’s eponymous cat, so too can the performance of projects and programmes be impacted by the need to produce endless reports and attend frequent progress meetings. This adds to the pressure the team may be feeling. One of the most obvious consequences of this environment is stress. When the demands placed on an individual exceed their ability to cope, they experience stress, which may could lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Another factor that can cause issues is conflict – even a well-performing project or programme team can experience conflict either within the team, with stakeholders, or even with other teams as they compete for precious resources.

The PMO is often at the centre of a number of projects and programmes. Its staff will have frequent contact with the project and programme teams and with some simple pointers, it may be well placed to identify the warning signs that indicate someone may be experiencing a mental health issue. Warning signs (shown in the diagram below) could include missed targets, increased conflict within teams, low morale, bad stakeholder feedback and decreased engagement. The PMO has its finger on the pulse of project and programme delivery and should be able to spot when there are even small atypical changes in performance.


These problems are real. The PMO could help by signposting further help available in their employer such as an Employee Assistance Programme, local mental health champions, or even a known sympathetic ear in management. PMO members are not necessarily trained mental health professionals but having an awareness of the signs, and a willingness to talk with and listen to someone they think could be experiencing a mental health issue would certainly go a long way.


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