ABOUT A YEAR BEFORE THE PANDEMIC SET IN, we began to notice something about the high performers we were studying for our ongoing research. For many, their lives felt out of control or had been pushed in directions not aligned with who they set out to be. After decades of research on teamwork and 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 people 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 small events — in passing moments — that was drastically affecting their well-being.
We call these small pressures microstresses. But being ‘micro’ doesn’t mean they don’t take an enormous toll. We wanted to understand their impact, so between 2019 and 2021, we interviewed 300 people from 30 global companies, evenly split between women and men. Many of these high performers were powder kegs of stress, and to our surprise, most didn’t realize it. But gradually, they began to acknowledge that they were struggling to keep up, with both work and in their personal lives.
Through this research we were able to identify 14 sources of microstress that fall into three broad categories.
CATEGORY 1: Microstresses that drain your capacity to get things done.
These are why so many of us feel that we’re failing at work and in our personal lives: We can barely get through our daily responsibilities.
The key sources are:
1. Uncertainty about others’ reliability
2. Unpredictable behaviour from a person in a position of authority
3. Collaborative demands that are diverse and high in volume 4. Surges in responsibilities at work or home 5. Misalignment between collaborators on roles or priorities
CATEGORY 2: Microstresses that deplete your emotional reserves.
These are disruptions to the internal ‘well’ of peace, fortitude and resilience that helps us focus, prioritize and manage conflict. The key sources are:
6. Managing and feeling responsible for the success and wellbeing of others
7. Confrontational conversations
8. Lack of trust in your network
9. People who spread stress
10. Political manoeuvering
CATEGORY 3: Microstresses that challenge your identity.
These trigger the uncomfortable feeling that you’re not the person you really want to be, which can chip away at your motivation and sense of purpose.
Key sources are:
11. Pressure to pursue goals out of sync with your personal values
12. Attacks on your sense of self-confidence, worth or control
13. Draining or otherwise negative interactions with family or friends
14. Disruptions to your network
Surges in work stress often come from seemingly simple
requests that don’t factor in their complexity.
The High Toll of Added Responsibility
The more things you are responsible for, the more microstresses will emerge and cascade throughout discrete parts of your life in unexpected ways: having a child, moving, settling into a new job, taking on a significant volunteer project and so on.
Most of us recognize the toll these responsibilities take on our lives, and when these big transitions happen, our friends and family step up to support us. But surges in responsibility come in smaller doses, too. Unlike a major life transition, with microstress surges, we just throw the extra responsibility onto our already-full plate without thinking about the cumulative load we are carrying.
Microstresses that increase our responsibilities at work are often exacerbated by the amount of time we need to collaborate with others. At a time when we are expected to be agile, juggle multiple tasks, be part of numerous cross-functional teams and respond to real-time demands from management and customers alike, surges in work often come from seemingly simple requests that don’t factor in their complexity.
Two projects can look identical in terms of the work required, but if one involves three functional areas across two time zones, two leaders who don’t like each other and the need for resources from a unit with different priorities, that’s a very different story. Such a project entails a far greater workload than does a project with the same number of people in only one unit. Surges in responsibility create stress not only because of the actual work but also because of the collaborative footprint of the task.
Surges also occur in our personal lives, and they don’t always come from immediate family responsibilities. Microstress can also occur when we feel the burden of responsibility for extended family members. We might need to care for aging parents, and the stress can be exacerbated when relatives who aren’t involved in your parents’ day-to-day life freely weigh in with opinions but offer no help. Of course, surges never land on an empty plate, so they cause some amount of stress purely because of the effort required to address them.
One interviewee described the burden of what she called ‘parent homework’ — the assignments children bring home from school that are far beyond their capacity to complete independently. These tasks take planning and preparation and often force parents to run out and buy last-minute supplies. And these assignments always seem to creep up on you.
For example, your child might tell you Friday night that they have a big report due Monday. But your weekend is already crammed with plans. Adding even one extra project like that onto an already full to-do list can ripple stress throughout your whole family: Your child feels stress from your impatience or frustration with the project; your spouse feels stress as you struggle to get the project done or ask them to step up to take care of it. You may cut corners at work because you’re distracted and frustrated by this parent homework that suddenly appears. And the stress continues to generate ripples.
The secondary effects of surges in responsibilities can be particularly damaging. Surges at work are bad enough, but perhaps even more painful is how they bleed into stress at home. When you’re consumed with microstress from work, you aren’t your best self at home. You may stay late at the office or bow out of family obligations, disappointing everyone in the process.
But even simply failing to give your family your full attention when you are home can profoundly affect your family’s everyday happiness. Everyone feels it. And surges at home inevitably create stress at work — either because you have to work harder or because you need to manage disparate demands of work and home life. Working late at night and very early in the morning is bad for your brain; cortisol levels increase and you’re exhausted. It’s hard to be present in ways you should be at work and at home when you’re constantly hanging on by a thread. These stresses have become so commonplace that many people live their lives as one long string of microsurges.
Strategies for Pushing Back
You can’t always control what you’re asked to do, but you can control how you respond. You don’t have to default to yes: you can respond in ways that help you prevent a surge from taking over your day, your week and your life. Here are some ideas.
PUSH BACK ON UNREASONABLE DEMANDS. Before people even ask, set expectations by clarifying the unique value that you add. This way, you ensure that they don’t ask you to tackle something outside your areas of expertise. When possible, look to redirect work to someone who is in a better position to deliver on it. Be more confident in pushing back when others’ demands are unreasonable. Finally, tap into your network for authoritative opinions to support you through a surge, or into data and the backing of experts to legitimize your point of view when shifting unreasonable demands off your plate.
BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE. Have people in your life who hold you accountable for not just saying yes to every request. Even wellmeaning colleagues will take as much as you’re willing to give. Happier people tend to have others around who help them make conscious decisions about what to give time to and what’s not worth it. The important people in your life, like your partner or other respected family members, can provide you with a kind of counterbalance when you are considering whether to jump into a major new commitment. They can help reinforce the importance of personal and family time to correct for the tendency to allow work to fill all available time.
RENEGOTIATE YOUR WORK PORTFOLIO. The moment you’re asked to handle a major surge of work, renegotiate other work demands. Instead of adding more to your workload without thinking, use that inflection point to get agreement on what can be taken off your plate or what resources you can receive to make the new request feasible.
The Top 10 Per Cent
In our research, however, we found some bright spots. A small subset of our high performers were not beaten down; harboured few regrets; were physically healthy; and had a rich life beyond work and family. The contrast between these people and the microstressed was striking. We have come to call these people ‘the 10 percenters,’ and we wanted to understand what they do differently. While they have little in common on the surface, we observed some recurring patterns. Each 10 percenter had made deliberate choices to shape the relationships in their lives. They defined success for themselves in a broad and multidimensional way, and they held themselves accountable to it. Achieving that involves being connected to a wide variety of people, both in and out of work. And these connections, in turn, help them fend off crushing microstresses. It’s a virtuous cycle. During our research, both of us began to adopt some of the 10 percenters practices. We can report that these efforts have made a meaningful difference to both of us. Here’s what we can all learn from these microstress masters.
- IDENTIFY OPPORTUNITIES TO PUSH BACK. Identify a few microstresses that are affecting you and come up with concrete strategies for pushing back on them. ‘Stop responding to notifications in real time’ is probably not achievable; but ‘Turn off notifications between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.’ is both more concrete and actionable.
- CHANGE HOW YOU INTERACT WITH THE MICROSTRESS. Consider whether you are contributing to the problem in some way, perhaps without even knowing it. Even small shifts in dialogue make a difference: “What I thought of as an innocent remark,” one midlevel manager told us, “my boss heard as me questioning his ability. I changed the first word of the sentence so instead of making a statement, I was asking a question. And it altered the entire dynamics of relationship.” For this manager, ‘You don’t want us to do a quality control round?’ became ‘Do you want us to do a quality control round?’ Such subtle changes can soften an entire interaction.
- LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO RESET RELATIONSHIPS. One executive found herself paired with a difficult colleague during a training session on recognizing implicit bias. Neither thought they had any implicit bias, but the training helped both of them realize that they had subtly staked out what they thought was a moral high ground. This became an opportunity to better understand one another, taking some of the heat out of their interactions when they might disagree. Take the time to understand what might be driving rifts in relationships to overcome them. One strategy is to pivot to what another person is passionate about in their lives— personal or professional. This often helps uncover common ground you might not have been aware of.
- DISCONNECT FROM THE STRESS. You won’t be able to push back or rise above some microstresses. So, consider distancing yourself or separating from the source of the stress entirely. That doesn’t mean you have to cut people out of your life completely. A distancing strategy can be temporary. You can decline social commitments that pull you into behaviour you don’t want, or you might recommend different non-stress-triggering ways to get together with those same friends. Meet for dinner before heading to the baseball game rather than spilling out into a local bar afterward, when alcohol-fuelled tensions inevitably lead to an argument. When you can’t see another path to minimizing or eliminating a microstress that’s taking a heavy toll, consider disconnecting.
Done right, your relationships with others can become a kind of force field against the inevitable barrage of microstress.
Well-Being Is Other People
One of the most important insights we have gained from the happiest people in our research was that other people are not only critical to helping you keep microstresses in perspective, they are also essential to helping you build a full, rich life. Very few people find happiness in isolation.
Every model of happiness we’ve found makes clear that personal well-being depends on authentic personal relationships. One of the longest-running studies of adult life, what’s known as the Grant Study, followed Harvard alumni for nearly 80 years, collecting data on their physical and mental health. The study’s most significant conclusion was that the single biggest determinant of happiness and well-being over a lifetime was not fame or fortune but high quality personal relationships. Taking care of your body is always important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.
There’s an old saying that ‘if you find one true friend in your lifetime, then you have been truly blessed.’ But our research suggests that a single friend is not enough. You need a variety of relationships (not just close friends) to help you get through the reality of living in a cauldron of microstress.
Achieving well-being involves developing strategies to combat microstress and live a fulfilling life in three key areas: resilience, physical well-being and purpose. In each area, your connections with others play a critical role. The key lies with both the authenticity and the diversity of the relationships. The most significant impact comes from being connected with people who unite around some interests — religion, singing, tennis or activism, for example — but who come from different career, socio-economic, educational or age groups. The shared interests tend to create authentic and trusted interactions, and the diversity of perspectives helps expand the way we see the world and our place in it. And yet in spite of how important relationships are to our happiness, too many of us let them slip as the years roll by.
People who told us positive life stories invariably described authentic connections with two, three or four groups outside of work: athletic pursuits, volunteer work, civic or religious communities, book or dinner clubs and so on. Often, one of the groups supported physical health — through nutrition, mindfulness or exercise practices. They were sometimes surprising relationships that might seem improbable; but they provided something meaningful.
The 10 percenters we met consciously build meaningful connections with other people into their day-to-day lives in ways that helps them rise above much of the noise of microstress and focus on what matters most to them. To be clear, this group wasn’t necessarily extroverts who found time to keep up with a wide range of friends and social connections. The common thread was dimensionality — building and maintaining connections with a variety of people, often in small ways.
Done right, your relationships with others can become a kind of force field against the inevitable barrage of microstress. But meaningful relationships require you to take deliberate actions daily. What’s more, at critical transition periods in your life, you need to maintain these relationships even more, so you don’t default into a defensive posture, become one-dimensional and simply absorb all the stress coming at you.
Social science research shows that a negative interaction has up to five times more impact on us than a positive one. All of us are flooded daily with microstresses that we don’t even recognize. Think of the impact you can have by identifying and correcting even one or two of the microstresses in your everyday life. Better still, think of the effect of creating some new, positive interactions with people who will add purpose and growth to your life. The reality is, in today’s interconnected world, we’ve never had more opportunities to shape what we do and whom we do it with.
Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and the Co-founder and Director of the Connected Commons. Karen Dillon is a former editor of Harvard Business Review. They are co-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).
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