Magazine / The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems, and What to Do About It

The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems, and What to Do About It

Book Bites Career Habits & Productivity

Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden professor of global leadership at Babson College, and co-founder and director of the Connected Commons, a consortium of over 150 organizations.

Karen Dillon is a New York Times bestselling author and the former editor of Harvard Business Review. She is also a member of the faculty of Intermountain Healthcare Leadership Institute.

Below, they share 5 key insights from their new book, The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems, and What to Do About It. Listen to the audio version—read by Rob and Karen—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. Brief, routine interactions with others can actually trigger hours, or days, of micro-stress.

Let’s take a common daily experience for all of us to explain how micro-stress works. Here’s how a single email, asking various people to help prepare materials, from the new head of marketing catapulted Rita and her colleagues into a spiral of panic.

In some ways the email couldn’t have been simpler: a routine request from a leader to a team to prepare for a known presentation. But that single communication spurred hours of stress throughout the entire organization. The email seemed urgent, but lacked detail, leaving every recipient with questions. When does he need the materials? Slides or talking points? What time frame does he want to include? And so on.

Because he was the new boss, none of the employees wanted to risk looking inattentive or stupid, so they simply tried to figure it out on their own. Emails flew across the marketing department as Rita and her colleagues tried to read between the lines. Ninety minutes later, Rita realized she had dealt with 34 emails asking for direction, or complaining about the timeline. In the meantime, two people on that thread had gone ahead and done what they thought the marketing director wanted and forwarded the results to Rita, but each of them had leveraged different data sources that told an incompatible story. Rita didn’t discover this, however, until 6:30 p.m., when she finally had enough time to look at their work after the day of firefighting had yanked her from her other priorities. By then, of course, both people had already left for the day.

Rita had hoped to sit down to dinner with her teenage son that night, he’d been sullen recently and spending more time in his room than normal. Unfortunately, she didn’t feel she could leave until she’d tried to clear up the data question with her colleagues. By the time she finally drove out of the parking lot, she knew that yet again, she’d likely missed a window to connect with her son. The new marketing director might have assumed this was a simple request; he wanted to see data presented in a couple of different ways, but it had ended up dominating Rita’s afternoon and evening. Rita didn’t even consider pushing back because she just assumed she could solve the problem with herculean efforts. As she drove home that day, she made a mental list of all the other things she hadn’t gotten to because she was chasing that one email.

“For most of us, any given day can be filled with a range of seemingly small requests or priority shifts that upend our day.”

If that scenario sounds familiar, that’s because for most of us, any given day can be filled with a range of seemingly small requests or priority shifts that upend our day. They cause us to drop what we are doing to focus on something else, put in extra hours at work, and push family and friends to the side in the process. When micro-stresses hit us, we typically don’t pause long enough to register what they’re doing to us; we just soldier on. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not taking a significant toll on our day.

2. Micro-stress may be hard to spot but it takes a very real toll on our brains and bodies.

Why should we care about the impact of tiny moments of stress? Micro-stress is particularly pernicious because it’s baked into our everyday lives at a volume, intensity, and pace we have never experienced. And yet, our bodies don’t quite know what to make of it. Because it happens so quickly in the course of a routine day, micro-stresses can fly under the radar of our fight-or-flight vigilance systems while still taking a significant toll, neuroscientists tell us. While our brains barely register the individual micro-stresses in the first place—we may not even remember the original source of the micro-stress—our bodies know something has happened.

For example, one study found that if you’re exposed to social stress within two hours of a meal, your body metabolizes the food in a way that adds 104 calories to the meal. If this happens daily, you’d gain 11 pounds in a year! Micro-stress can increase our blood pressure and our heart rate, or trigger hormonal or metabolic changes. So you may be quicker to dismiss micro-stress than more macro forms of stress because you think you can just manage it in the moment. But when micro-stresses accrue, one on top of the other, they begin to wear you down. As research shows, the continual battering of micro-stress that most of us have in our everyday lives can lead even the highest performers to burnout, not just in their work, but in their personal lives as well. If these high performers feel this way, what hope is there for the rest of us?

3. We don’t even recognize micro-stress, even though it’s so damaging.

Where is all this micro-stress that we hardly notice coming from? It’s baked into our everyday lives. Research has identified 14 specific sources of micro-stress, in three broad categories.

Firstly, there are micro-stresses that drain your capacity to get things done. This is why so many of us feel like we’re failing both at work and in our personal lives, that we can barely get through the responsibilities of our day. Micro-stresses that drain your capacity are the kinds of things that clog your calendar. How many of us have the feeling that we can’t even start our own work until the end of the day, or after we spend our day in meetings or chasing requests from others? This category of micro-stress might take the form of finding that you are misaligned on roles or priorities with your colleagues on a project at work. You might find that you’re part of a cross-functional team where individual team members have very different views of what success will look like. You might find yourself dealing with an unpredictable authority figure (such as your manager) who is constantly shifting what she or he is asking of you without recognizing the micro-stress it’s causing you. You might simply be having to cope with a surge in responsibilities at work or at home, like worrying about a child who’s struggling in school or an aging parent. Everyday life challenges can be the source of layers and layers of micro-stress for you and your whole family.

“How many of us have the feeling that we can’t even start our own work until the end of the day, or after we spend our day in meetings or chasing requests from others?”

Secondly, there are micro-stresses that deplete your emotional reserves, the internal “well” of peace, fortitude, and resilience that help you focus, prioritize, and manage conflict. The people who cause us micro-stress are typically people we are close to personally or professionally, therefore, the micro-stress we feel during our interactions with them can come layered with emotional complexity. Because these people are part of our daily lives, we can’t remove ourselves fully from those interactions that deplete our emotional reserves. This might come, for example, from managing and advocating for people on your team. One common example of micro-stress is managers who are constantly worrying about ensuring that their direct reports are thriving. Another example might be if you find yourself having to navigate confrontational conversations, not necessarily with a jerk, but with a colleague who is overloaded and simply trying to get his or her work done, too. Or, you might find yourself having to figure out how to work with different colleagues because of the way teams are formed and reformed in hectic workplaces because you simply haven’t worked with them long enough to build up trust.

Finally, there are micro-stresses that challenge your identity, triggering the uncomfortable feeling that you’re not the person you really want to be. These micro-stresses that challenge your identity can slowly chip away at your motivation and sense of purpose. This may come from finding yourself being asked to do work that might conflict with your personal values (such as being part of an aggressive sales team), having interactions that undermine your confidence (for example, your role at work may feel impossible to keep up with in ways that make you feel like you are set up to fail), or even simply losing day-to-day access to the network of colleagues who supported you at work when you change jobs. All too often we find ourselves in an “echo chamber,” trying to live our lives to meet the expectations of other people, without recognizing the toll that can take on our sense of who we are. Most of us experience multiple forms of these micro-stresses in our day-to-day lives, and cumulatively, they add up.

4. Removing even a few negative interactions in your life can have an enormous impact.

So, what can we do about the tsunami of micro-stresses? Conventional advice for improving our well-being tends to focus on steeling yourself against stress such as using mindfulness, meditation, or gratitude. These are good things to do to help refresh our minds and bodies. However, wouldn’t it be better if you were able to remove some of the micro-stress in your life instead? From decades of social science research, we know that a negative interaction is up to five times more impactful than a positive one. That means finding ways to eliminate even a few micro-stresses in your life can make a significant difference.

Research suggests that most people can find opportunities to make a notable difference in their micro-stress levels using three strategies. First, push back on micro-stress you are experiencing in concrete and practical ways. Small but effective shifts to how you are interacting with others can very quickly counter micro-stress and have an outsized impact on your daily life. These strategies range from learning how and when to say no to small asks, to managing technology and how it notifies and interrupts you, to readjusting relationships to prevent others from putting micro-stress on you.

The trick in this all is to manage the interactions and not the relationships. In fact, in contrast to how we conventionally think of stress, many of the greatest sources of micro-stress in our lives are people we love and care deeply for. For example, my daughter is simultaneously an inspiration and a key source of purpose and humor in my life. Yet at the exact same time, this little person turns out to be one of my biggest micro-stressors as I worry about her well-being, help her with different aspects of her life, or just absorb her stress. One of the things we had fallen into was a pattern of her sending me little notes to vent whenever anything bothered her, large or small. For her, these texts were ten seconds of time that then had me worrying about her in the back of my mind for hours. As we discovered this in a comical way one night, we shifted how she turns to me. She doesn’t pass on the knee-jerk reaction micro-stresses anymore but when she needs me, I am there in a heartbeat. So the relationship is as strong and critical as ever, but we have taken out one kind of interaction which has had a major impact on my life. When you start looking at the interactions themselves you discover countless opportunities to make shifts that dramatically impact your well-being.

“The trick in this all is to manage the interactions and not the relationships.”

Secondly, and this may be a little bit surprising, is to be attuned to the micro-stress you are causing others. Inevitably, when large audiences are polled on which micro-stresses are impacting them the most and which they are causing, we get very similar patterns. In other words, the micro-stress we experience we tend to pass on. Of course, we want to stop this. Nobody wants to be the kind of person who causes other people micro-stress. However, the magic is that this won’t just help your colleagues, it will help you too. When we create micro-stress for others, it inevitably boomerangs back on us in one form or another. Think about how a child might become more petulant if you get overly pushy about keeping up with their homework. Or how you might be unintentionally burning out your highest performing direct report because you don’t stop to think about what micro-stress you are causing for them. This can result in the stress boomeranging back on you as they become less engaged or maybe even leave. Emitting less micro-stress means you will receive less in return.

5. Those who are best at managing micro-stress work at building “multi-dimensional” lives.

The final strategy found in research involved finding ways to rise above micro-stress. One reason some micro-stresses affect us is simply that we let them. You can learn to keep some of them in perspective and let things that used to bother you just roll off your back. This is not just a call to see life through rose-colored glasses; we recognize the toll that micro-stress can take on all of us.

However, research shows that the happiest people are those that are able to put some of the micro-stress in their lives in perspective better than the rest. The people who were the best at coping with micro-stress made a conscious effort to shape their lives to have more diverse connections with other people. They pursued activities, common interests, and group experiences that helped create a rich, multidimensional life to help “inoculate” them from the effect of micro-stress. For example, something as simple as meeting a group of friends for a weekly basketball game, or maintaining a group chat to share silly memes that only your closest friends from college will understand. These things can offer moments of authentic connection that soften the blow of micro-stresses. This is called finding “dimensionality” in your life and these activities and groups can serve a very real purpose of helping you recognize when minutiae is minutiae.

For example, a well-regarded neurosurgeon found himself reveling in the fact that he had been able to rekindle his passion for music after he joined a local band that met on the weekends. Now he plays with amateur musicians much younger than he is, but finding that authentic connection with them, not to mention blowing off some steam together, has added a vibrant new dimension to his life.

Adding dimensionality to your life doesn’t require big new time commitments. Those found to be able to manage micro-stress well just found ways to connect with others in small moments. One person relished working in his yard on the weekends because he was able to connect with his neighbors. Another played in an informal soccer pickup game with other parents and children in a way that allowed him to develop new friendships, spend time with his own children, and improve his physical well-being all at the same time. For others, it was as simple as maintaining connections with lifelong friends, even if that just happened on texts or other virtual forums.

Having a multidimensional life means that our identities aren’t overly tied to one activity, like work. The mere act of connecting with others, having informal conversations, sharing mutual interests, or seeing the world from another perspective is a powerful antidote to the daily toll of micro-stress. Those connections can also help us build resilience, continue to prioritize our physical health and find purpose, even in small moments.

As we go through life, we are pulled in so many different directions that we tend to let go of the activities and relationships we once enjoyed. Research shows that we need a variety of relationships, not only close friends, to help us get through the reality of living with micro-stress. Yet despite how important relationships are to our happiness, many of us let them slip as the years roll by.

To listen to the audio version read by co-authors Rob Cross and Karen Dillon, download the Next Big Idea App today:

the Next Big Idea App

Also in Magazine

Sign up for newsletter, and more.