Don't Let Micro-Stresses Burn you Out

July 14, 2020 — Source: Harvard Business Review

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COLLABORATION

Don’t Let Micro-Stresses Burn You Out

by Rob Cross, Jean Singer, and Karen Dillon

Hiroshi Watanabe/Getty Images

We all have days when we go home exhausted, fall into bed, turn off the light, and drift into a fitful sleep. For some of us, that happens almost every day. You might chalk it up to a difficult project, client, or boss stressing you out. But what you might not realize is that there is much more contributing to that exhaustion. Stress comes to us all in tiny little assaults throughout our day — what we call “micro-stresses.” And it’s coming from sources you might never have considered. The volume, diversity, and velocity of relational touch points (the way we routinely communicate and collaborate with others) we all experience in a typical day is beyond anything we have seen in history, and cumulatively they are taking an enormous toll on our health and our productivity at work.

You probably don’t need us to tell you that stress makes you more susceptible to chronic illness and mental health conditions, such as depression. By some estimates, 60-80% of all doctor visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Stress is so harmful to employees that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared stress a hazard of the workplace. Stress takes a big bite out of productivity, as stressed-out people tend to make lower-quality decisions and are often less motivated, innovative, and productive in their work. Ultimately, unrelieved stress can lead to burnout, which is characterized by exhaustion, detachment, and poorer performance at work.

The problem is that most of us have come to accept micro-stresses as just a normal part of a day. We hardly acknowledge them, but cumulatively they are wearing us down. And what’s worse is that the sources of these micro-stresses are often the people — in and out of work — with whom we are closest. We have identified 12 common “relational” drivers of stress (see chart below) that are likely taking a significant toll on your well-being, without you necessarily being aware of their impact. Until you recognize these sources of stress, you can’t begin to address them.

Our conclusions about micro-stresses are based on research we’ve done over the past decade involving dozens of top-tier companies, where we engaged with hundreds of people across industries such as technology, biopharmaceuticals, finance, and manufacturing and asked them to share their experiences of relationship-driven stress with us, using both quantitative studies and in-depth interviews. Our goal was to identify the sources of micro-stresses that are the direct result of the way we typically interact with each other at work and home. We have categorized these stresses into three buckets: 1) micro-stresses that drain your personal capacity (the time and energy you have available to handle life’s demands); 2) micro-stresses that deplete your emotional reserves; and 3) micro-stresses that challenge your identity and values. Do any of these feel familiar?

What's Driving Your Stress?

Micro-stresses infiltrate our lives in ways we often do not realize. The chart below shows 12 common micro-stresses and the relationships from which they emanate. Select the two or three that systematically drive the greatest stress for you.

 Relationships
Micro-stressesBossOther leadersPeersClientsTeamLoved ones
Draining your personal capacity
Unspoken tensions in the ways we routinely work with our colleagues create stress when they generate additional work or reduce our ability to do what we already have on our plate.
Misalignment of roles or priorities      
When others don’t deliver reliably      
Unpredictable behavior from a person in a position of authority      
Poor communication norms      
Surge in responsibilities at work or home      
Depleting your emotional reserves
Some micro stresses cause us harm through negative feelings that drain our emotional reserves: worry for people we care about, uncertainty over the impact of our actions, fear of repercussions, or simply feeling de-energized by certain types of interactions.
Managing others and feeling responsibility for their success and well-being      
Confrontational conversations      
Mistrust in your network      
People who spread a contagion of stress      
Challenging your identity or values
Most of us like to think that we have a clear set of values and identity that guide our actions, at work and at home. Interactions that routinely create friction with those values or challenge your sense of self can be emotionally exhausting.
Pressure to pursue goals out of synch with your personal values      
When someone undermines your sense of self-confidence, worth, or control      
Disruptions to your network      
Source: Rob Cross, Jean Singer, and Karen Dillon© HBR.org

The point is that these micro-stresses are all routinely part of our day and we hardly stop to consider how they are affecting us, but they add up. They may arise as momentary challenges, but the impact of dealing with them can linger for hours or days. In our research, we have seen a plethora of high performers who seem to inexplicably burn out. But when you look more closely, the trigger becomes clear: a battery of micro-stresses building up over time.

So what can be done to mitigate the micro stresses in your life? Traditional advice on coping with negative or stressful interactions doesn’t work because micro-stresses are deeply (and invisibly) embedded in our lives. They are coming at us through relationships and interactions that are too numerous and high velocity to easily shake off. Consider even just one micro-stress in your day — perhaps the frustration of a colleague missing the mark on a joint project, or the emotional toll of a trusted work colleague moving on — and try explaining it to someone close to you. This kind of discussion traditionally helps people process and deal with stress. But it can take 30 minutes to describe the history, dependencies, and context so that that person can empathize and possibly make helpful suggestions over the next half hour. A precious hour later, you might feel better… or you might have wasted both of your time. In many scenarios, we’re getting hit with 20-30 micro-stressors a day. Who has time to articulate this all? And who, on the receiving end, wants to hear it?

Micro-stressors pose a different dilemma than we have seen before so we need new tools for mitigating them. Our work shows three promising approaches.

  1. Isolate and act on two to three micro-stressors. The chart above can help you to locate two to three micro-stresses that have a persistent impact on your life. These have typically become things we’ve considered to be “normal” in our lives that if altered can have a significant impact. Micro-stressors create emotional build-up that needs to be released before you can think rationally about a constructive response. So the first step is to decompress — hit the pause button, close the laptop, and undertake an activity that is self-affirming and that absorbs you so “the nonsense of all the things that bother you melts away.” When you narrow the list of micro-stressors you’re focusing on to two or three, it’s easier to find time and energy to vent, if that’s helpful to you. Our stressors often look different after we’ve had a chance to distance ourselves from the “noise” of anxiety or defensiveness. Conversations with trusted people in our network can help to unpack what’s really bothering us and why, or reframe and see our stressors in a different light. We can then act and know that we’re taking direct aim at the source of our stress, for example by having an awkward-but-crucial conversation that can transform a relationship, by pushing back on unreasonable demands or dysfunctional behaviors, or by strengthening the network of people who can help buffer us from negative interactions.
  2. Invest in relationships and activities that keep the less consequential micro-stresses in perspective. To be sure, there are truly important mindfulness practices — like meditation or gratitude journaling — that can help on this front. And, of course, maintaining physical health through exercise, proper nutrition, and good sleep habits is probably the most important lever we have for combatting stress today. But there are also important relational solutions: people who have greater dimensionality in their lives and broader connections just don’t experience micro-stressors in the same way; they are able to keep them in perspective. When we talk to people who tell a positive life story, they often have cultivated and maintained authentic connections that come from many walks of life — athletic pursuits, volunteer work, civic or religious communities, book or dinner clubs, friends from the local community, and so on. Interactions in these spheres can broaden their identity and “open the aperture” on how they look at their lives. Key to riding above the sea of micro-stressors are relationships that generate a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives — not just in the nature of our employment, but in the connections that sustain and define us beyond our work.
  3. Distance or disconnect from stress-creating people or activities. Over time, it’s not always easy to detect when a friend or colleague is routinely causing you stress, rather than lifting you up. But that’s what makes it all the more insidious. We can become intertwined, both personally and professionally, with people who routinely leave us feeling emotionally depleted. Take a step back and evaluate the relationships in your life over which you have control — and make an effort to create some distance in the ones that create more stress than joy. To be clear, stress-creating relationships are not just negative or toxic ones. They can be people that we enjoy spending time with, but that enable unproductive behaviors (“Come on, you can finish the project tomorrow, let’s check out that new restaurant tonight!) or those who routinely leave us stranded with work because they haven’t come through on what they promised (“I didn’t finish the report, let me give you my notes and you can take it from here…”). You don’t have to disconnect from the people you enjoy being around, but you do have to recognize their effect on your mental and physical well-being and try to put some boundaries around those relationships.

We don’t have to accept micro-stresses as destiny. Stress patterns are often predictable, and if we see them for what they are, we can build the support network, mindset, and constructive responses that we need to head them off. As one leader told us, “I’m just going to lay down some new rules that may upset the cart at first, but in the long run, are going to make me a better contributor, because I won’t feel frazzled all the time.” Once you learn to recognize the patterns of micro-stressors in your own life, you, too, will be able to put the proper conditions in place to mitigate them.


Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and a coauthor of The Hidden Power of Social Networks (Harvard Business Review Press, 2004).


Jean Singer is a Principal with Collaborative Analytics and a co-editor of The Organizational Network Field Book.


Karen Dillon is a former editor of Harvard Business Review and a coauthor of three books with Clayton Christensen, including the New York Times best-seller How Will You Measure Your Life?