Microstress: Tackling the invisible force burning out your employees
- 7 Min Read
Microstresses are small moments of stress, caused by brief, routine interactions with people in our personal and professional lives that are so brief we barely register them, but whose cumulative effect is enormous. What can organizations do to manage microstresses, and their damaging effects, on employees?
A few years ago, we were in the initial stages of a research project with people whose organizations had defined them as high performers. We noticed something we hadn’t expected to find. Once we got beyond the surface, we could see that many of these high performers were just barely holding it together. Surprisingly, it was never one massive thing that led to people feeling overwhelmed. It was an accumulation of small, insignificant stresses that was profoundly affecting these people in ways that they had not even recognized. Through this research, we identified a new form of stress: Microstress. It goes unnoticed by most of us but is powerful enough to derail even the most promising careers and lives.
What is microstress?
What do we mean by microstress? Small moments of stress, caused by brief, routine interactions with people in our personal and professional lives that are so brief we barely register them, but whose cumulative effect is enormous.
Our days are filled with microstress that we don’t even recognize. When these microstresses hit, we typically don’t pause long enough to register what they’re doing to us physically and mentally. We just soldier on. Each of these individual microstresses may seem manageable. After all, they come in just “moments.” But what we often don’t see is how microstresses can trigger a chain reaction of other, unrecognized stresses that can stretch for hours, even days. For example, we might work harder and longer to compensate for teammates that just missed the mark, putting strain on our personal relationships in the process. Or we might deliver subpar work because we ran out of time, which in turn causes stress in the professional relationships who were counting on us. The long-term impact on performance and well-being can be enormous.
Forms of microstress
Most of us experience multiple forms of microstress across those categories. Some of the most common sources of microstress in our research can affect both individual and team performance at work – and contribute to burnout among even the highest performers. The microstresses we identified in our research with high performers came in three broad categories.
- Microstresses that drain our capacity to get things done. For example, discovering that you’re slightly misaligned on roles or priorities with colleagues on work.
- Microstresses that deplete our emotional reserves. For example, managing and advocating for others. This creates a unique drain on our emotional reserves as we manage performance issues, give critical feedback, or resolve group conflicts.
- Microstresses that challenge our identity. Such as draining or other negative interactions with family or friends. This is not because these relationships are toxic or dysfunctional, this form of microstress comes in the feeling that we’re not being the parent, sibling, child, or friend that we want to be by falling short in some ways.
What can you do about microstress?
It’s not possible to eliminate all of the microstresses you face. But you can make a material impact on your overall well-being by finding ways to remove even just a few. Years of social science research tell us that negative interactions have 3-5x the impact of positive ones. So, removing even just a few microstresses can make an enormous difference. For example, if you find that your teams are frequently slightly misaligned on work projects, you can try to correct and pre-empt that misalignment before it triggers more microstress for everyone.
Gather your team for a quick alignment meeting. “I suspect that we are each interpreting the goal of the project slightly differently, can we take 30 minutes in the next couple of days to make sure we’re aligned?” In the meeting focus on how the misalignment is impacting team members. If you can make clear to everyone how inefficient and frustrating the misalignment is, the team should be open to course-correcting.
1. Re-establish the purpose or importance of the project in a collaborative discussion
Focus on the impact that working together as a group generates. Appealing to higher-order goals that engage everyone– not, for example, focusing on meeting company revenue goals or deadlines, but on the way the new software will democratize work for customers, or the research will help create more affordable medications — and can see how they can contribute to is essential. The opening of these meetings should not devolve into discussions of timelines and past misses. Rather, they should dive into positive aspirations of what the team can do, move forward with concrete commitments from people, and offer clarity on obstacles that the team needs to remove.
2. Talk through how each person’s (or team’s) work is contributing to the overall project
Identify the resources needed for each person or team’s work. Make sure everyone is clear on what the team is asking them to do and what they are assuming others will do.
3. Have a candid discussion on obstacles that would keep people from being able to execute
This might take the form of reviewing available time and resources, or pressure from a team member’s functional leader to prioritize other work. Some you will be able to resolve (e.g., speaking with a team member’s leader). And some you won’t (e.g., resources). But identifying the obstacles allows you to create more realistic timelines and assignments and an escalation path for problems that are out of scope.
4. Sketch out visually the inter-dependencies so they are clear
Visually capture the interdependencies that will impact others’ work. It doesn’t need to be a perfect flow chart, just a rough road map for the entire team. Leave the whiteboard (whether physical or virtual) up for every meeting. (There are many virtual tools to do this, such as Miro or Notion, collaborative tools, in which you create a shared whiteboard with sticky notes that everyone can share and modify.)
5. Secure commitments from each team member regarding the work they are doing
Use the final few minutes of the meeting to have everyone state back their expectations and the actions they will take before the next meeting. Agree to open each new meeting (whether in person or virtually) with a review of the whiteboard as a visual reminder of where you were and where you’re going and to identify any new or brewing misalignments.
The importance of multi-dimensional lives
One of the most important insights from our research was how a small subset was able to navigate microstress better than the rest of us. We started to call this group the Ten Percenters. They were more willing to push back on systemic microstresses in their work and personal lives. What’s more, they were able to inoculate themselves to some of the effects of microstress by working to build what we call “multi-dimensional lives” to ensure work and home did not solely define their lives. They found ways to create authentic moments of connection with other people outside of those two spheres of their lives in ways that helped them build resilience, helped support their physical well-being, and even helped them find purpose in everyday life.
We all experience microstress in our lives, but it doesn’t have to defeat you if you understand what it is, recognize how it’s affecting your performance, and then find small ways to push back and rise above it.
Rob Cross is a professor at Babson College and Karen Dillon is a former editor of Harvard Business Review. They are the co-authors of The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems – and What to Do About It.