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The Hidden Toll of Microstress

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rob Cross and Karen Dillon for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Mojo Wang

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Small, difficult moments can zap your performance. Here’s how to restore your well-being.

A few years ago, we interviewed a pharmaceuticals executive who seemed to have built an ideal life. She was excelling at work, her personal life was rich and full, and she was able to take regular vacations, whose destinations were chosen by virtue of where she and her husband could run marathons together. In our interview, she was happy and her energy was off the charts.

Her story was great to hear but perhaps not surprising — the interview was part of our research into what makes high performers different from the rest of us. She was, we thought, a case study in having it all. But as it turned out, we didn’t know the full story. This interview also led us to discover something we weren’t looking to find. Something bigger

The executive hadn’t always had such a balanced life. In fact, she’d only gotten herself together after a stern warning from her doctor, who said the way she’d been living was jeopardizing her physical health. Prior to being the high performer we interviewed, this woman was a self-described sedentary workaholic who was thriving in neither her personal nor her professional life. How had someone who was clearly goal-driven neglected her well-being so drastically? On a whim, we asked her what had thrown her off track in the first place. For a moment, she was stumped.

“It was just life, I guess.”

The answer intrigued us, so we started asking other high performers if their lives were feeling out of control or had pushed them in directions not aligned with who they set out to be. In total we interviewed 300 people from 30 global companies, evenly split between women and men, from 2019 to 2021. Many of these high performers were powder kegs of stress, and to our surprise, most of them didn’t realize it. But gradually, usually deep into our interview, they began to acknowledge that they were struggling to keep up with both work and their personal lives. For some, our interviews were an inflection point, the moment they first recognized just how bad things had gotten. Some even broke down into tears, lamenting that they couldn’t see a path out of barely holding it together.

After decades of research on collaboration, and specifically the effects of too much ineffective collaboration, we were familiar with the kinds of stress that high performers typically endure. This, though, was completely different. What we were hearing about was stress, yes, but in a form that neither they — nor we — had the language to articulate. As they fumbled to describe it, patterns emerged. It was never one big thing that led them to feel overwhelmed. Rather, it was the relentless accumulation of unnoticed small events — in passing moments — that was drastically affecting their well-being.

We called these small pressures microstresses. But being “micro” doesn’t mean they don’t take an enormous toll in the long run. In this article we will describe how we came to understand microstress, where it comes from, and how our bodies respond to it. We have grouped the most common sources of microstress into three categories so that you can understand how they arise in your life. And finally, we’ll explain how you can push back on microstress to feel more in control, strengthen your relationships, and improve your overall well-being.

Stress vs. Microstress

Microstress is different from the type of stress we’re all familiar with. Here’s how:

Stress is big, visible, and obvious. Virtually everyone can recognize, and have sympathy for, normal stress — it comes from universally recognized challenges or setbacks, and often there’s a “bad guy” who is the source of it. Maybe it’s caused by reporting to a mercurial boss whose daily mood permeates the entire office. Or by having survived multiple rounds of layoffs that eliminated positions in your department. Or by managing a house move, or continually being called on to help dependent parents, or enduring a grinding, two-hour commute.

By contrast, microstress is far less obvious. It’s caused by difficult moments that we register as just another bump in the road — if we register them at all. Microstresses come at us so quickly, and we’re so conditioned to just working through them, that we barely recognize anything has happened. They tend to seem fleeting, simple to deal with, or too minor to hurt us for more than a second. And even when we do register microstress, we don’t necessarily think about its impact on our lives. Making it even harder to recognize is the fact that microstress is often triggered by the people we are closest to.

For example, it might be caused by feeling the need to protect an employee on your team who isn’t getting recognized for their work. Or by having to put in extra time to finish a joint project when your teammates fall short on their part. Or by your manager’s suddenly changing a project after you’ve called in favors to get it done, wasting your and your coworkers’ time. Or even by knowing that you’ll have to miss your weekly tennis game with a friend (again), making you feel that you’ve let them down once more and that your skills are declining.

Microstresses, as their name implies, are small — often invisible to us. Yet they also sometimes seem like positives or easy-to-justify decisions that, in the moment, appear harmless. After all, you’re stepping up in some way to help others. How can it be bad to feel poorly for a minute about unintentionally wasting your friends’ time? Why not pick up the slack for your lax coworker? It’s only an extra 15 minutes of work for you that will help the whole team.

But that’s exactly what is so pernicious about microstress. Individual stressors seem manageable in the moment, but they accrue, and they can create ripple effects of secondary and sometimes tertiary consequences that can last for hours or days — and even trigger microstress in others. For example, if your teammates fail to complete a key task, you’ll have to clean up their underdelivery and have an uncomfortable conversation about what happened. In addition, you’ll have to ask your partner to take your child to the dentist, even though it’s your turn and the child likes that you always remember to pack their favorite toy. And beyond that, you might not have time to work on a professional development project as you’d planned to.

Microstresses may be hard to spot individually, but cumulatively they pack an enormous punch.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Rob Cross is a senior vice president of research for i4cp and the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He is the co-author of The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Add Up–and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023).
Karen Dillon is a former editor of Harvard Business Review and coauthor of The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems — and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023). She is also coauthor of three books with Clayton Christensen, including the New York Times best-seller How Will You Measure Your Life?


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