managemnet company strategy managemanet When Small Stresses Lead to Big Problems

When Small Stresses Lead to Big Problems

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ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Allison Beard.

Do you ever feel like it’s not one big thing stressing you out or getting you down, but a bunch of little things piling up, a client complaint, a coworker missing a deadline, a call from the kid’s school, an unexpected traffic, even your roommate’s dirty dishes in the sink?

These are what our guests today call microstresses, small annoyances that can snowball into big problems per performance, productivity, and physical and mental health without us even realizing it. They’re going to explain why that happens and what we can do about it.

Karen Dillon is a former editor of Harvard Business Review. Rob Cross is a professor at Babson College and together they wrote the book The Microstress Effect and the HBR article, “The Hidden Toll of Microstress.” Karen, Rob, welcome.

KAREN DILLON: Thank you, Allison. So good to be here.

ROB CROSS: Yeah, thank you so much.

ALISON BEARD: Big picture, how do you differentiate stress from microstress?

KAREN DILLON: Stress is something we recognize and we know, I’ll call it macrostress for this purpose. Major life events, losing a job, health of a loved one, being in jeopardy, sick child, things like that. We recognize them, we know how to respond to them, and we get empathy from other people about those major stresses. But microstressors are things that happen so quickly and so briefly with routine interactions in our day that our brains rarely recognize them. So what happens is the microstresses are actually taking a toll on us, but we don’t actually even have the language to complain about all the small things. It’s just life, right?

Our brains almost – our frontal lobes almost don’t recognize them. They don’t register in the same way that a macrostress would. A macrostress triggers our normal fight or flight mechanisms for protecting ourselves. But microstresses happen so briefly that we don’t remember that they happened. But at the same time, our body starts to register as if it were just layering and layering of a more macrostress. They still add up to something really significant. You almost can’t remember why you’re tired at the end of the day, but your body knows it’s tired because your body has felt the impact of all those microstresses throughout the day.

ALISON BEARD: And Rob, what are some common causes of microstress?

ROB CROSS: So what we could see is most of this microstresses that we’re focusing on are coming at us through connections in our lives, either professionally or personally. And again, they’re happening in small moments, things that we’re just conditioned to get through and get over each day. But the fact that they’re coming at us through relationships actually make them more profound than disassociated stress, like social justice issues or the war in Ukraine as an example. What we’re feeling when it comes at us gets spiked just a little bit more because of that emotion and the relationship.

So what we can see is there are three categories of these interactions. Some that drain our capacity or our ability to get done what we need to get done. Some that hit us emotionally and have an impact on us, either in terms of feeling anxiety or other elements like that. And then some that just challenge our identity and slowly move us away from the person that we set out to be in the beginning, all of which are happening in small moments day to day, week to week that accumulate over time.

ALISON BEARD: Through your research, what did you find about the real concrete impacts of microstresses for people in their professional and personal lives?

ROB CROSS: Some really phenomenal things. We actually found studies that were showing that if people consume a meal within two hours of being under this form of social stress, they actually metabolize that meal by adding 104 calories to it. And 104 calories it may not sound like a lot, but if you extrapolate that out through a year, that turned out to be 11 pounds in that specific study. And so we see a lot of things physically that are hitting us in different ways, higher blood pressure, all sorts of elements like that. And then the stories that we heard, we did hundreds of interviews behind this, but the stories were really profound.

I mean, most people, highly successful people had periods of 3, 5, 8 years in their lives where they were just executing in a given system and slowly got pulled into that and lost other things that were keeping them whole. Their hobbies, their activities, their friendship groups, their religious community, musical aspirations took all forms. So it had a profound effect on the trajectory of people’s lives, not because of one big moment, not a big health scare, not a nasty boss, but because of the accumulation of the small that flies under the radar screen.

ALISON BEARD: And Karen, this idea of microstress is building up into something bigger. Is that what we think of as burnout?

KAREN DILLON: I think it’s certainly contributing to burnout because the reality is that we are all faced with dozens of microstresses in a given day, and we’re always finding ourselves in what we call reactive posture. We’re responding to things, catching up, figuring out which balls we can drop, not how we do our best at our work or in our life in some ways. And microstresses, you don’t see them, you don’t recognize them, but they are really grinding you down. So absolutely it plays a significant role in burnout. The key thing is that people don’t recognize it so that they don’t know why they’re feeling so fried and burned out.

They’re busy, it’s hectic, but they can’t point their finger to anything. It’s like if you ever tried to explain how one email came to you during your day and it sent you off on a wild goose chase for 45 minutes, tracking something down, coordinating with other people, that sounds silly to talk about when you get home at night with your spouse or with your friends, but that’s just one of probably dozens of microstresses that you had to face during that day that really does play a significant role in burnout.

ALISON BEARD: You came to this work, both of you through research on collaboration and high performers. So talk a little bit more about why people who are achieving at a high level and have a lot of people to rely on for help in many ways suffer from this more often than others.

ROB CROSS: That’s a great question. I think a part of it is a product of how we become successful by continually overcoming things that leads us into this trap of absorbing more and more and more until it at one point you wake up and go, wow, what have I done? The very first interview we did, we actually weren’t looking for microstress as a central idea. I mean, the focus of this work was geared towards understanding how do connections have an impact on our wellbeing? And it was really only in the first interview we did that we bumped into this idea of microstress. And it was a super successful life science executive. In London, I won’t try to mimic the lovely British accent, but the very first question I asked was, tell me about a time in your life you were becoming more physically healthy. What was the role of the connections around you?

And she just laughed for a second and then proceeded to tell me amazing story about how she transformed herself from being somebody that was highly sedentary, facing significant health issues into somebody that was planning vacations and running marathons. So it was a wonderful interview and I made the mistake of stopping her about 45 minutes in and saying, “Well, what got you stuck?” Because to your point, you was somebody that was brilliant, got high motivations, and she just stopped. And this interview that was going a hundred miles a minute went down to zero. She was looking at me for 45 seconds and she just said, “Just life, I guess.” And we really dug into that. And then for hundreds more interviews about the way this accumulation of the small gets inside of successful people’s lives in ways that they just don’t see coming because I think we’re conditioned to just overcome in different ways.

ALISON BEARD: So talk more about that piling up process, the ripple effects of each little microstress, how that builds up in a person, and then how that person might cause it to expand outside of themselves to other people.

KAREN DILLON: I’ll talk about just the example earlier in our conversation. When you get an email that causes you to stop in your tracks and figure something out, we have a story in the book of a woman called Rita. She got an email looking for something from her new manager, and it was towards the end of the day, it was looking for something that that person was going to present to the higher ups. And suddenly, instead of tidying up her day and finishing the to-do list, she’s scrambling and panicking and communicating with a bunch of other colleagues. Do you have this? What data should I use? Is it due tomorrow? So suddenly one errant email that comes in at let’s say four 30 ends up causing her to both stay late at work to finish whatever it is she’s needed to give to the boss. But it’s also she’s triggered that out to her colleagues who now have to stop what they’re doing, try to find it, communicate it, try to solve it.

So suddenly what looks like a simple request and a brief email, let’s just say it took her an extra hour, hour and a half at work. That’s even just the consequences for her personally. Her colleagues had some of the same effects, so secondary consequences that they had to help scramble, they’re all going to go home worrying about it. So she gets home late from work, maybe a little later than she hoped, and maybe she doesn’t get to sit down with her family for dinner in the way that she had hoped to or to not be as fully present as she wanted to.

One email, right? She probably doesn’t even sleep well, and the next morning the cycle continues and now she has to figure out how to get what she didn’t get done yesterday, get done. It’s a simple example, but it’s an example of how one little thing can not only affect you in your day long beyond the original interaction, but it can ripple out to colleagues, to family, not only us but other people.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So we’ve talked a lot about the problem. I do want to get to solutions and I guess hearing that story, I think some people might react, well just buck up, stop letting the little things get you down, stop getting derailed by one email, be more resilient. Is that good advice?

ROB CROSS: I think it’s problematic. I mean, there’s an element of that that we all have to do to be successful for sure. But I think that knee-jerk tendency to say, “Well, this is just one more thing.” It just piles on over and over and over again and gets you into a pattern of absorbing these stresses in ways that start to pull you out of other things that keep you whole . Part of the problem I believe that we have with a lot of the wellbeing initiatives, and these are all great things, so don’t let me mistake that at all in terms of gratitude or mindfulness or meditation, yoga, these are all things that help us persist in the system that we’ve let build around us.

But imagine if you actually started shaping some of those inner interactions and you actually went out and said, okay, these emails were only going to process in a certain timeframe, or we’re going to do things that put some categorization around it that keeps it from rippling forward in different ways. What we know from all of social psychology is the negative interactions in our lives typically have about three to five times the impact of the positive. So imagine if you thought about your wellbeing not just in a way that helped you persist, but actually helped you shape and remove some of those interactions. What you’re really looking for, where are three to five of these things hitting me systematically in my life? They’re persistent, and I actually can go out and shape that interaction in a way that’ll have a pretty profound impact on me.

ALISON BEARD: So it sounds like you’re saying that there are small specific ways to fight each microstress rather than a holistic thing, more like preventative care or inoculating yourself against it?

ROB CROSS: Yes. And in the book we do talk about each of these because they have very individual kinds of approaches to dealing with. But in the pivot chapter where we’re moving from, here’s how you see and recognize these stresses to here’s what happier people are doing. We do really focus on this grid there where we have the 14 microstresses down one side and then the sources of those microstresses across the top, a boss, colleagues, teammates, loved ones, et cetera. And what we found really successful in working with a whole suite of audiences in different ways is we have people go through that and make a first pass and say, okay, identify three or four that are affecting you. They’re systemic enough in your life that you should be doing something about it, that you can shape the interaction. You increase time between the interaction, you can put that interaction in a group of other people. There’s a lot of things tactically you can do to remove the way stress is coming at you.

What people knee-jerk reaction is they want to list out 10 or 20 cells. All of us could do that, but we’re saying, no, no, no. If it’s everything, it’s nothing. Get down to three or four that you can do something about. And then we have them go through it a second time and we’ll say, “Okay. Now tell me which ones you’re causing others.” Unnecessarily creating stress for others. And in part, you’re just gearing to get leaders to think about how do we not just propagate stress, but how do we stop it in different ways, but the stress we unnecessarily create almost inevitably boomerangs back on us in a different form.

So you lean on that favorite employee one time too many because you’re under pressure and you’re trying to get something done and they start to back away and burn out and suddenly you’re working harder and you don’t know why. Or you push a child. One step too far on something that in the scope of life just doesn’t matter, but suddenly they’re stepping away too and you’re working a little bit harder to figure that out. So we found that balanced idea of saying, how do you adapt? The stress is coming at you in a very targeted way, and then how do you make sure you’re not causing it?

ALISON BEARD: So Karen, going back to that example you gave of Rita and the four 30 email from her boss, what specifically would you advise her to do? How does she stop her boss from sending those emails? How does she stop herself from reacting negatively to them and how does she stop pushing the stress onto her team?

KAREN DILLON: So again, we can’t all choose when to respond to our boss. We get that, but there are cultural things that you can do and there are ways that are appropriate to push back. So sometimes even just taking a few minutes before you accept work or an assignment or request and just clarifying, she may have literally called the boss right then and just instead of panicking with the email and said, “Just want to double check. Do you need this by morning? I think what I sent you was X or Y. I need to marshal a team. Is that okay?” And it could be that the boss says, “Yes, I need this by morning. All those things were necessary,” but the boss could also say, “Man, I was just trying to get myself ahead of the delivery date of next week. Let’s talk about it in the morning and you and I can work on it together.”

Just we react so quickly to things without always asking good questions in part because we want to be the yes people in a good way. It’s how people become high performers, but it’s not unreasonable to pause. Again, as Rob said, looking at things that are systemically happening and bake something into how you work with your colleagues in a way that will prevent or minimize the microstress that comes out of misalignment or just taking time to understand and communicate before we’re just rushing off to do things is a really good way to minimize the microstress from an interaction like that.

ALISON BEARD: And then what about preventing yourself from looping others in and causing more microstress to others even when their help might be necessary?

KAREN DILLON: In that case, it may, for example, have been a good idea to just have a quick call, get everybody on the phone at the same time. So maybe you’re looping them in still, but maybe they literally have a five minute phone call or a Zoom call together saying, we need to get this data. Who’s going to, can you do this? Can I get this? Have we done this before? You could just prevent that spiral of just rapid iteration that’s not really logical, it’s just happening because we’re trying to respond so quickly.

ALISON BEARD: And also everyone having their own individual stressed out reaction, a group acknowledgement that this is a small annoyance that needs attention, but getting through it together.

KAREN DILLON: It is. And it’s also there are some preventative things you can do as a team or as a culture literally just agreeing on the norms of how we communicate and collaborate. So agreeing that I don’t expect you to reply to all unless you’re adding something substantial and important to the conversation. We get more efficient with how we communicate.

ALISON BEARD: When you recognize that you have this problem, is it something that you should talk to your manager about? It seems a little strange to just say, “I have all these little problems and please help me with them.”

ROB CROSS: I think it’s actually something that you don’t necessarily go to a leader to talk about. I think you could if that was the originating source. So one of the microstresses that we see are when stakeholders, whether it’s a leader client, others are randomly changing a path for you. So that may be changing what’s being asked, changing what good looks like, timelines, whatever that may be. Again, that has an effect on you, but then it has that ripple effect that Karen was talking about. So in that instance, there may be really good reasons to go to the leader and say, “Okay. Let’s just align a little bit earlier so that I’m not creating this ripple effect myself.” But a lot of the others are actually things that you can shape in your individual lives. And just by virtue of being very focused on where are these stresses coming from without necessarily having to go directly to a leader and say, “Gosh, I’m stressed out.”

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I’m very conscious that so much of this goes across professional and personal and then back again. So how do you navigate those issues ensuring that your professional stress isn’t affecting your personal life and vice versa, particularly when it’s these little microstresses that shouldn’t bother you, but they pile up and they do?

ROB CROSS: Part of the problem is we experience these microstresses and we have the blah day, or we have some instance during the day that we just roll our eyes on, and then we oftentimes will go home and tell our significant other who they themselves have no context for what you’re talking about. They may have a little history with it, but then they just take your side on it and say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you were treated that way.” And they spiral us up one step further, all in well intended, but not in a productive way that actually is helping you solve the problem.

ALISON BEARD: Or just, “Could we please have a quiet night without complaining?”

ROB CROSS: Right. Part of it is a question of how do you think about where you go for resilience? We’re so conditioned to see it as something we own that we have grid or fortitude, but if you ask hundreds of people how they made it through difficult stretches, and they could be, I didn’t get the promotion up to my spouse died from pancreatic cancer. I had three young children and ask them not what they did to get through, but how did they lean on others? You actually hear eight pretty specific things we get from others, perspective, empathy, a path forward, humor in a situation. All that creates resilience. If we have an ability to get that from connections around us and the connections more broadly than just our significant other or parents, those two categories of people are absorbing more and more of these difficult conversations as we go.

But if you start looking at it as what do I really need in this situation? Is it perspective? Is it to see the best way through this route, whether it’s a struggling parenting challenge or a new role, that starts to open up an aperture to say, gosh, there’s a lot of places I could get that right. There are different ways that I can build a network that’s going to create that for me.

KAREN DILLON: Alison, we call that a resilience network. I just think it’s a really interesting concept to think about, again, from the research that we need a resilience network, meaning different people who can play different roles in helping us be resilient. And the key is you don’t need 27 ride or die friends to be the backup for your spouse when he or she gets tired of hearing about whatever the issue is or helps you wallow too much. You can have people that you are in various degrees of closeness to, but who play relatively important roles in helping you be resilient.

Maybe it’s a former colleague who knows you well, understands the context of your professional life or your situation, and can suggest a path forward that it’s not pouring your heart out to them, but they may help you say, have you tried X? Or Why don’t you talk to so-and-so? That’s really an important to develop a network of people, various roles, various things that they can provide to help you get through those times to be resilient. It doesn’t require the deep investment in having more friends. You can have a less than close network of friends that are also really valuable and powerful.

ALISON BEARD: You made the point that relationships often lead to microstresses. So if you have lots of connections with people, that’s lots of demands being placed on your time, if you have a big family, if you have a large team, et cetera. But then relationships are also the solution to the problem. So talk a little bit about that tension or that dynamic where there are a bunch of people who are causing you the microstresses, but then there are also a bunch of people in this resilience network that can help you get through the problems.

ROB CROSS: I think one of the key things we learned going through this work, what we would experience through the interviews is these are all highly successful people, top organizations. So the first 10 minutes of every 90 minute interviews, it was just rainbows and lollipops, everything was great, and then slowly you would unwind that. And some people actually ended up choking up a little bit by the end of the interview trying to manage the context that they themselves had created professionally and personally in their lives and all the obligations and commitments that they felt pressure around. But what was fascinating is about 10% didn’t do that. So they were crushing the performance side, but they were just integrating work and life and relationships in different ways that allowed them to experience the stress differently.

They were much more likely to have typically two and oftentimes three groups, they were an authentic part of their profession and direct family. Being an authentic part of those groups brought a diversity of thought into their world around something they cared about that just created dimensionality in their lives. And suddenly all that minutia just didn’t even register in many ways. So they tended to be really good at that.

Now the problem for most of us legitimately, the stress has gone up. If you look at how we’re hyper connected going through COVID and some of the decisions we’ve made to collaborate more and more intensely, the opportunities for stress coming at us through connections has gone through the roof. And at the same time, the social distancing has taken us out of these groups that helped us manage to begin with. So what we found is these people were just good at maintaining those as really key parts of their lives. They didn’t make trade-offs to prize work over that in different ways over time. So that’s one way that tension was managed.

ALISON BEARD: And we’ve talked about individual solutions. We’ve talked a little bit about team solutions establishing better norms around communication, for example. What about taking it to an organizational level? Is there something that managers of larger groups, C-suite executives can do to make sure that microstresses aren’t happening in their organizations and negatively affecting their employees?

ROB CROSS: We’re just starting to get these ideas into play at that level. The first step was really to isolate out obviously the dimensions and see what’s causing it and help people build individual strategies for that. But we’re starting to see some really neat implications of this. So we have one leader of a group and a software organization that actually asked people to include what they were doing on a wellbeing front into their performance review plans. And he really wanted to take seriously this notion of how do we make sure people are doing things that push back on these microstresses in different ways?

We see other programs that some of the companies are starting to build that are getting the teams committed to taking action on two, three, or four of the microstresses over the course of a four or six week period to see if they can culturally shape how stress is getting propagated in different ways. So we’re just at the early stages of this, but I think actions like that as well as other actions that organizations are taking and really scanning and looking for the small impediments to work, the unnecessary decision approvals or things like that are really starting to get some momentum and I’m excited to see what happens.

KAREN DILLON: The thing about microstress is it’s not caused by people who are really jerks and hostile and toxic trying to get you off your game. It’s just caused in the speed and the rapidity of everyday actions because we need to get so much done, and we’re on so many teams and we work so collaboratively. That just happens, the friction that happens in those interactions. So recognizing as a leader or manager of other people that you might be causing it and giving your team permission to talk about it and try to address it so that it doesn’t get worse before you start to be able to address it.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Part of the problem as a team or organizational leader in addressing it would seem to me that microstresses are so specific to each individual. So everyone might get stressed out by something completely different than their colleague. So how do you attack it then?

ROB CROSS: Yeah. You know, for me as an author, what everybody always wants is one thing. What’s the one thing that if I go and do, it’s going to have the greatest effect? And we’ve been able to tease that out more and more to say, here’s the biggest microstressor that everybody seems to be experiencing. But whenever we do these polls in groups and we say, which of these 14 are hitting you? It’s almost an even distribution. And then we say, which 14 are you causing? And it’s almost an even distribution that’s identical.

So that’s really the architecture of this chapter five in the book is to give people a device to get down to, not the one thing everybody should do, but in the context of my life, what are the four or five intersection points I need to be thinking about a little bit differently? And we’ve put an app up on the Apple Store that’s free for everybody called The Microstress Effect app, and it’s really geared to helping people go in and isolate out, which are the two, three or four that are hitting me now, and how do I go build an action plan against it? Because you’re exactly right, both the form of the microstresses and then where they’re coming from are very different for people depending on life context, professional context, career stage, elements like that.

ALISON BEARD: So as a manager, really your job is to empower the people on your team to do this for themselves and give them the space and time to do it, the language to talk about it?

ROB CROSS: Yeah. And I hear a lot of people that I’m interacting with now have started asking people in their one-on-ones, what do you have going on outside of your work? We found three really great strategies. One is to reach back to a passion from the past and use that to slingshot into a new group. One of our favorite interviews was a very high-end neuroscientist at one of the most respected research hospitals in the country. He went through a couple of interactions with us and then wrote us a note probably three or four months later saying, “I’ve joined a rock band and I’m having the time of my life. I’m seeing my life differently with them as lenses.”

So again, the principle behind that is reach back to a passion and use that to slingshot into a group or reach back to dormant ties, connections that you may have lost contact with five, 10 years back. And Karen and I did an experiment where we set up seven, eight minute phone calls and nobody will turn down an eight minute phone call or try to schedule it three months out. They’ll make fun of you for the eight minute request and you’ll be laughing immediately. But all those interactions led to a joy in just reconnecting, and many of them led to other things for us that we’re doing with people.

And then the third is to really think about how do you take activities you’re already doing and pivot them in a way that pulls you into authentic connection with others. So again, one of our favorite interviews was this happened to be a Silicon Valley executive. She was in her roughly mid-forties, super type A personality, and she said, “I came out of Stanford and just continued to run 10 Ks or marathons, and if I didn’t get a personal best time every year, it was a bad year for running.”

ALISON BEARD: Times go up. They don’t go down as you age.

ROB CROSS: Yeah, exactly right. But the challenge with that is she was organizing her life around that. She was getting up earlier. Each morning she was doing yoga in addition to running training and weight training and all of it in isolation or with a small group of people in very specific ways. And she woke up one day and said, “That’s not what running means to me. What I really want to be doing is running with my daughter, her best friend and her parent,” that was in the neighborhood. And this group evolved into a larger group of parents and children that would run periodically through the weeks and as a way to get together and physical health. So you see what she was doing is she was taking the exact same activity, running, but she was doing it in a way that pulled her into connections that mattered. In this case, it’s community and family, and she said she’d never been happier with the role of running in her life.

KAREN DILLON: I’ll just add the reason it’s so powerful, and again, we learned this from our 10 percenters, is not because they have more hours in the day to do this stuff or to make more connections or have more friends or bigger social network is because as Rob said, they could connect with other people in ways outside of work and home in ways that become really powerful, almost inoculation to the effects of microstress.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Well, thank you all for shedding light on this problem that’s often overlooked, but as you say, really affects our professional life and our personal life and mixes between the two as well. So we appreciate having some solutions.

KAREN DILLON: Thank you, Allison.

ROB CROSS: Thank you.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Karen Dillon and Rob Cross, coauthors of the book The Microstress Effect and the HBR article, “The Hidden Toll of Microstress.”

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at or search, HBR and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.

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