The microstress effect

Brief moments of stress can wear down even the most resilient leader. Here’s how to manage microstress.

“I have the best job in the world,” says Allen, whose job as chief diagnostic medical physicist for a major health system requires him to ensure that the sophisticated medical equipment for the 700-bed hospital is always working properly. It’s a hectic job that keeps him on his toes most days. But some days the incoming requests are so fast and furious that Allen silently declares it’s a “laughing day”, because if he didn’t do that, “I would probably just shut down completely.” Like many of us, Allen tries to be easily accessible to his colleagues, via phone, mobile phone, email, text, pager, or in his office in person. “But there are times I will get a call on my office phone, then someone else will call my cell phone, and I’ll be in the middle of two different conversations, and I’ll get a page about the same issue from someone else,” he explains. “Then, as I’m on the phone, I’ll see so many emails popping into my inbox that it almost looks like my inbox is scrolling. And I’ll look up and someone else is standing in my door with something they need me to sign, and so on.”

Individually, most of the demands are reasonable and Allen is naturally good at multi-tasking. But even a high performer like Allen can end up feeling fried by the end of the day when the demands come in rapid-fire. “Those are the days that I almost can’t remember what I did during the day, and even though I do very little physical activity, I end up feeling exhausted,” he says.

There’s a reason for that. Allen is suffering from what we call microstress – brief moments of stress triggered by other people in both our work and personal lives that accumulate invisibly day-to-day, in ways that suck the life out of us. Microstress is different from the more conventionally recognized form of stress that most of us are familiar with, such as a toxic person (a boss who is a jerk, an unrealistically demanding client, a difficult personal relationship) or a traumatic life event. Microstress often comes to us through people we love and care about, and it’s hard to spot because of the ways it is baked into our everyday lives.

On the verge of burnout

Our research with hundreds of high performers across a wide range of world-class organizations helped us uncover the unrecognized toll of microstress. We initially set out to determine how high performers built and sustained networks, but as we worked our way through these interviews, we noticed something else going on. Contrary to how their companies saw them, we recognized that these high performers were far too frequently on the verge of burnout. As we talked, we’d begin to discover the constant pulse of tiny stresses in their lives that neither they, nor we, initially had the language to articulate. These were moments of stress from interactions with other people that were so brief they almost seemed silly to complain about. But cumulatively, when we face dozens of these microstresses in any given day, the toll is enormous.

As our understanding of stress evolved, we delved deeper into solutions that could alleviate these pervasive microstresses without disrupting the high-performance environments where they thrived. One promising avenue we explored was the potential of CBD in managing stress and anxiety. CBD, derived from the cannabis plant but non-psychoactive, has garnered attention for its purported ability to reduce stress levels without impairing cognitive function. For high performers constantly navigating a landscape of pressure and expectation, CBD presents a natural alternative to traditional methods of stress management.

This is why so many of us feel like we’re failing both at work and in our personal lives. How many of us have the feeling that we can’t even start our own work until the end of the day, after we spend our day in meetings or chasing requests from others? Microstress can drain your capacity to get things done, chewing up time during your day. This might take the form of finding that you are misaligned with colleagues on roles or priorities on a project – for example, 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. Or you might find yourself dealing with an unpredictable authority figure (such as your manager) who is constantly shifting what she’s asking of you without recognizing the microstress she’s causing you.

Microstress can also drain your emotional reserves. This might come, for example, from having to navigate confrontational conversations – not necessarily with a jerk, but simply with a colleague who is stressed and overloaded and trying to get her work done, too. The conversation you have leaves both of you feeling off-kilter. Or you may find yourself having to figure out how to work with different colleagues because of the way teams are formed and reformed in hectic workplaces, and you simply haven’t worked together long enough to build up trust.

Finally, microstresses can challenge your identity. For many people, 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 be so overloaded with responsibilities that you feel you are being set up to fail), or even simply losing day-to-day access to a valued network of supportive colleagues when you change jobs.

Eroding a mountain

Here’s why microstress is so destructive: our brains know how to register conventional forms of stress. They can identify the threat and use our fight-or-flight mechanisms to deal with it. But microstresses are fleeting and individually don’t seem extraordinary – especially for successful people who have learned to routinely overcome obstacles. As a result, microstresses fly under the radar of our fight-or-flight vigilance systems while still taking a significant toll, says Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist and researcher at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine and the chief medical officer at Isaac Health, which provides online brain-health services. “Imagine wind eroding a mountain,” Salinas told us. “It’s not the same as a big TNT explosion that punches a hole in a mountain, but over time – if the wind never stops – it has the potential to slowly whittle the entire mountain down to a nub.”

So, while we may not be consciously aware of microstressors, they still can increase our blood pressure and our heart rate, or trigger hormonal or metabolic changes. “While microstresses are damaging our bodies, our brains are not fully registering them as a threat,” Salinas explained. “Therefore, our brains are not triggering the same kind of protective higher-order mechanisms that might occur in the face of more obvious stress.”

But we have good news. While our research offered a sobering assessment of the microstresses most of us face daily, we also found cause for hope.

Managing microstress

In our research, we observed that some of the high performers – a group we came to call the ‘Ten Percenters’ – were much better at coping with microstress than the rest of us. What do they do differently? They did three things well.

1. They’re better at removing themselves from interactions that systemically generated microstress in their lives. Unlike those of us who would just default to accepting the microstresses as inevitable, our Ten Percenters were more likely to shape these interactions to reduce microstress. For example, they would address the stress-creating interaction directly with the person concerned, often finding that simply talking about the microstress not only stopped it from recurring, but helped form a tighter bond. Or they would put the interactions in a context that made them less stress-inducing. That might mean having lunch with other people present instead of meeting one-on-one, suggesting walking meetings with pleasant distractions instead of internal conference rooms, or shifting the activity: for example, instead of meeting for after-work drinks with a friend who gets loud when he drinks, asking to meet with other friends to catch a movie.

With tweaks to routine interactions and willingness to push back, the Ten Percenters were able to mitigate some of the negatives that many of us would simply endure. Conventional wisdom often advises us on ways to steel ourselves to deal with stress – mindfulness, meditation, or increasing the positive relationships in our lives to counterbalance our stress. Those are worthwhile activities, to be sure: but as our research suggests, actively removing even just a few negative interactions may be the highest-leverage opportunity to improve our overall well-being. Decades of social science research shows that a negative interaction can have up to five times the impact of a positive one, so removing even just a few negatives can make a big difference.

2. Our Ten Percenters were far more thoughtful about not creating microstress for others. At first this might seem counterintuitive. But think about what happens when you push your child too hard on their grades: it comes back in the form of a rebellious attitude, maybe for days or weeks. Or consider the stress you create as a manager by unnecessarily shifting expectations or failing to manage the workload of your star employee. They’re more likely to burn out, or worse, leave the job. Stopping this cycle helps prevent microstress from boomeranging back on us.

3. Finally, the Ten Percenters understood that there are too many microstresses in a typical day to push back on all of them, but they were able to keep them in perspective by building and maintaining connections with a variety of groups, something we call ‘dimensionality’. People who told us positive life stories invariably described being authentically engaged with a few groups outside of their profession: athletic pursuits, volunteer work, civic or religious communities, book or dinner clubs, and so on. These groups created diversity in their worlds that helped them see and think about their lives from many angles. They created perspective, helping our Ten Percenters avoid getting mired in the weeds with inconsequential stresses. Dimensionality often provided connections that formed quickly around some shared interest and didn’t take years to build in the way that deep friendships can. One of our Ten Percenters, a highly regarded neurosurgeon, delighted that he had joined a local weekend rock band with much younger musicians. Others described finding meaningful connection even in small moments. One key source of those was often colleagues, who directly impacted how our Ten Percenters lived their lives day in and day out.

We can’t promise that you’ll be able to magically erase all the microstresses you’re facing with these three steps – but they don’t have to dominate your life. Done right, your relationships with other people, even just in small moments of connection, can be a kind of force field against the impact of microstress.

Rob Cross and Karen Dillon are the authors of The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems — and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023).