Like it or not, stress is a normal and unavoidable part of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that we should simply allow it to run rampant.
Most of us are aware of the impact that major stress can have on our physical and mental health. Pressing deadlines, a toxic work environment, or life events like moving or losing a loved one can all take a huge toll.
But what often goes unnoticed is the regular small stressors that can ultimately have a similarly detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing.
Known as microstress, this phenomenon has become the focus of researchers Rob Cross and Karen Dillon, who explore it more fully in their 2023 book, The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems – and What to Do about It.
These small moments of stress may not mean much on their own. However, when we are constantly exposed to microstresses as we go about our days, the pressure soon begins to build.
Over time, those microstresses can add up to the point that we’re feeling overwhelmed and burnt out – without quite being able to identify why we feel that way.
As always, awareness of the issues is the first step to finding a solution. So, in this blog post, we’ll look at microstress in more detail, explaining what it is and how it might impact you. We’ll give some examples of microstresses you might encounter in your daily working life. And we’ll suggest some ways you can reduce microstress and minimize the effect it has on you.
What Is Microstress?
Microstresses are tiny, passing moments of stress that you encounter throughout your day. Usually, they are so small and fleeting that you barely notice them.
On their own, these small moments would have next to no impact. They aren’t major enough to trigger your full stress response, so you might not even notice you’ve reacted to them at all. But they can still cause small physiological changes, such as an increase in your heart rate or breathing.
When you repeatedly encounter microstresses, the pressure they create begins to build. You find yourself feeling depleted and exhausted at the end of the day, without being able to point to a clear cause.
And if every day is like that, you soon find yourself on the route to burnout – a condition caused by chronic work-based stress.
Unfortunately, the very nature of microstress makes it difficult to identify what is causing your feelings of being stressed and overwhelmed. Many of us live with microstress for years, not realizing just how much of an impact these small pressures can have – or even recognizing them as pressures at all.
Even once you become aware of the issue, it can be difficult to explain it to other people. While most will sympathize with you when they can see the sources of normal stress – a grueling workload, an unreasonable boss, or issues in your personal life – microstresses are harder to identify and many of us lack the language to talk about them and their impact.
The Impact of Microstress
Microstresses may only be small moments of pressure, but we shouldn’t underestimate their potential impact. Indeed, Cross and Dillon first identified the issue when interviewing high performers across a range of companies.
These professionals were all living with high levels of stress – to the point that many felt like they were hanging on by a thread – but none could easily point to a cause. Cross and Dillon realized that it wasn’t a single major issue that was contributing to their stress, but a relentless build-up of small pressures that had eventually become overwhelming.
Just like other forms of stress, microstress can build to the point where it impacts your physical and mental health. Over time, it can leave you feeling emotionally depleted, affect your ability to rest and relax, lower your mood, and cause physical symptoms, such as headaches.
Of course, feeling this way has a significant effect on both your personal life and your work performance. We cannot show up at our best when we are dealing with the relentless drip, drip, drip of microstress, depleting our mental and emotional resources.
Microstresses are also particularly intertwined with our relationships. They are most often cause by encounters with the people closest to us – our colleagues, team members, friends, and family – usually unwittingly.
Examples might include being late for your daughter’s school play because a meeting ran over, or having to step in to finish a piece of work that a colleague was supposed to complete. These seemingly small decisions can erode your sense of your own values and priorities, and their effect can ripple beyond the action itself.
Because these are relationships that we value – an rely on – these small moments that erode them can cause feelings of guilt or failure, amplifying the effects of the microstressor even further.
Examples of Microstress
Through their work, Cross and Dillon have defined fourteen different types of microstress that many of us will encounter regularly in our day-to-day working lives. Here, we list each of the fourteen types briefly.
These fourteen types of microstress fall into three broad categories: capacity draining, emotion depleting, and identity challenging.
1. Capacity Draining
Capacity-draining microstresses are those that affect your ability to get your work done. Examples include:
- Misaligned roles and priorities between team members and other collaborators
- Feeling the need to compensate for your colleagues’ small performance misses
- A boss or other authority figure who is unpredictable
- Inefficient communication practices that cause distraction and wasted time
- Increased responsibility at work or home
2. Emotion Depleting
Emotion-depleting microstressors wear down your inner emotional resources of patience, kindness, calm, and resilience. These include:
- Feeling responsible for the success of others and advocating on their behalf
- Difficult and confrontational conversations
- A lack of trust in your network – professional or personal
- Taking on the stress of others around you
- Workplace political maneuvering
3. Identity Challenging
The final category of microstresses are the ones that make you feel like you are acting in a way that doesn’t fit with your sense of self. Examples are:
- Pressure to act in a way that conflicts with your personal values
- Moments that undermine your confidence, sense of control, or belief in your self-worth
- Negative interactions with friends and family
- Changes and disruptions to your established network
Reading through this list, we’re sure you can think of many times when you’ve encountered moments of microstress that fall within one of these categories.
Perhaps, for example, you are trying to focus on a tricky piece of work, but colleagues keep calling or sending messages with queries about their own work. You want to be a supportive colleague or manager, so you respond immediately to their requests.
As a result, you’ve lost time working on your own task, which has put you behind schedule. At a team meeting that afternoon, your boss asks for the task results, and you aren’t able to provide them. The meeting moves on, but the incident still causes a small blow to your confidence and self-esteem.
To make things worse, you have recently moved to a new team, and you are anxious to impress. It is why you allowed yourself to be interrupted earlier in the day, and now not having the answers to present means you’ve failed to impress your new boss.
You stay later than you’d originally planned to finish off your task so that your boss will have the answers she wanted in her inbox first thing tomorrow. But now you are late getting home, and it was your turn to cook dinner, so you get a frosty reception from your partner when you finally walk through the door.
Nothing major went wrong, but your day has been slowly slipping away from you in ways that make you doubt your competence, feel resentment towards your colleagues, and guilt towards your partner.
This is how microstress works. It isn’t one moment, but a thousand of them, slowly building until we feel like we are losing control.
How Can You Reduce Microstress?
Although you are unlikely to ever eliminate every source of microstress from your life, there are actions you can take that will reduce the load and give you a little less to cope with each day.
Just as tiny moments of stress can add up over time, eliminating even a few microstresses from your day can make a huge difference overall. Of course, the first step to being able to remove microstresses is being able to identify where they are cropping up in our life and which types of microstress affect you the most.
You can use the list from Cross and Dillon’s work above to help you identify which two or three microstresses are taking the greatest toll on your wellbeing and productivity. Then, you can start to take concrete steps to address them. Here are a few ideas for where to start.
1. Communicate Clearly
In many cases, reducing or removing causes of microstress is about clear and honest communication. Going back to our example above, a lot of microstress could have been saved by simply putting a firm boundary in place.
Instead of allowing yourself to be interrupted by the needs of colleagues, you can let them know that you can’t help right away and tell them when you will be available instead. You are still being a helpful and supportive colleague, but without allowing it to disrupt your own work.
Of course, it may not always be this simple. But collaborating with other people to agree on clear goals, align on roles and ways of working, and set unambiguous expectations and deadlines can eliminate many sources of microstress – as well as help you build trusting relationships with your colleagues.
The same tactic can be useful in your personal life – the language you use will be different but clear communication is just as useful outside the office as within it.
2. Be Self-Aware
As well as becoming clearer on the times when others cause you microstress, take some time to notice when you might unintentionally be the cause of it in others.
Trying to minimize how much microstress your actions cause others makes you a better colleague and manager. And it helps you too. Firstly, because each person who commits to better working practices helps to shift the office culture towards one where microstresses are less common. And second, because it will make your own life easier too.
The microstress we create in other people often comes back to us in the form of eroded relationships and diminished trust. Plus, stressed colleagues rarely perform at their best, making it even more likely that you’ll find yourself needing to pick up the slack.
3. Make Technology Your Friend
There’s no denying that multiple forms of communication can add to our stress levels. When you are constantly interrupted by chat and email notifications, you inevitably find your focus slipping. But technology can be an ally as well as an enemy when it comes to microstress.
Small changes can make a big difference to your sense of control over your day. Muting notifications, making use of Slack/Teams/Google Chat statuses, setting up your calendar and out-of-office to communicate your working hours and availability – there is plenty you can do to make technology work harder for you and encourage better working practices in others too.
4. Rise Above
Unfortunately, there are times when no amount of clear communication or clever use of technology can eliminate a source of microstress from your life.
However, that doesn’t mean you are helpless. We have a degree of choice in how we react to microstress and sometimes the best option is simply to rise above some of them.
Being able to recognize microstresses helps here – when we become more aware of how they show up, it is easier to put things into perspective. It is a tactic that works best with those microstresses that have slightly less impact, instead of the ones that you identified at the start as taking the greatest toll on you.
You’ll also find it easier to rise above some microstresses if you feel a sense of purpose and meaning in your life, especially when this comes from several different places, not just from your work. Being able to focus on what matters to you in the bigger picture helps to put small stresses in their correct place.
That said, don’t expect to be able to rise above everything. It is better to remove microstresses when you can, or you are likely to find yourself back where you started.
Even tiny fleeting moments of stress can have a big impact on you life when it builds up over time. To prevent being overwhelmed, look to identify causes of microstress in your day and take steps to remove those you can, while keeping the rest in perspective.