This specific kind of stress makes managers less effective. see Fast Company Compass (Microstresses and awareness of damage. Burnout or maybe chronic fatigue. The reality is it can have permanent effects. Decades ago I watched my psychiatrist juggle so much work and asked him why I could no longer cope with the stress and was in deep depression. He explained then, when stress was deemed inconsequential, that I pushed the buttons too hard. Watch your stress levels is very important and especially if you have tendency towards microstresses so well documented in this article. For people interested in stress related implications, I recommend the Whitehall Study decades old now but highly influential.

This specific kind of stress makes managers less effective

New research suggests that even the highest performers are in danger of drowning from ‘microstress’ at work. Here’s how to help your team avoid that fate.

[Source photo: RunPhoto/Getty Images]


CEOs are throwing tantrums about productivity and return-to-office plans

It’s not quiet quitting. 1 in 6 workers are actually fighting a hidden illness

It’s time to spring clean your calendar—and your work-life boundaries



“My team is constantly in fire-fighting mode,” Gavin shared with us. As part of a service team in global software organization, Gavin (not his real name) had been coaching his team to try to better advocate for themselves when they were inundated with requests for their time, both from him, as their manager, and from the other parts of the organization that they served. Individually each “ask” might have seemed manageable, but cumulatively they were adding up to the point where they affected his team’s performance—and their overall well-being. He was worried about his entire team being at risk of burn out.


What Gavin recognized was the effect on his team of what we call “microstress”—small moments of stress from interactions with people we are close to in our work or personal lives that are so routine we barely know they’ve hit us, but whose cumulative toll is enormous. Our new research into high performers has made clear the destructive impact of unchecked microstress, both on individuals and on teams.  In hundreds of interviews, we consistently found that once we got past the surface, even people who had been identified as high performers by their organizations were struggling to keep it all together because they were inundated with microstress.

Where is all this microstress coming from?

Our days are filled with microstress that we don’t even recognize. When these microstresses hit, we typically don’t pause long enough to register what they’re doing to us physically and mentally. Like Gavin’s team, most of us just soldier on. But microstresses can trigger a chain reaction of other, unrecognized stresses that can stretch for hours, even days. For example, we might work harder and longer to compensate for teammates that just missed the mark, putting strain on our personal relationships in the process. Or we might deliver subpar work because we ran out of time, which in turn causes stress in the professional relationships who were counting on us.


Gavin was concerned that his guidance to help his team navigate this all wasn’t sinking in. So he briefly set a trap for them to drive his point home. “I created a couple of false demanding deadlines to see if they were willing to respond in the way I had asked them to in such circumstances, which was to come back and discuss the request and the timing before they just added it to their already overloaded to do list,” he told us. But to Gavin’s dismay, “not one person pushed back. No one even asked if they could get just a little more time.”  

The individual people on his team either more or less ignored his request because they were just too overwhelmed to get to it or they planned to resort to personal heroics (one person even mentioned that he intended to skip a long-planned outing with his wife) to make Gavin’s ridiculous deadline. “I was just shocked,” he told us. “My team knows I don’t want them to do that!” So Gavin quickly came clean. “I explained that there’s no need for that—they’re all senior enough to push back.” The point, he made clear, was that he wanted them to be able to recognize when they were being overwhelmed with small demands that were hampering their ability to do their job well, so they could prioritize and use their time more effectively, rather than simply being in firefighting mode all the time.

How do you know if you’re experiencing microstress rather than just having a demanding job? If you’re like the high performers in our research, there are some clues:

  • You find yourself nearly constantly reacting, rather than being proactive.
  • You’re always responding to requests, trying to figure out which balls you can drop, or running between meetings without having time to process what you just discussed.
  • You overreact to small setbacks or snap at others in your professional and personal lives frequently.
  • You have slowly dropped out of activities and friendships that once were a vibrant part of your life and identity.
  • Your day starts to feel like it’s going off track as soon as you open your email inbox.

If any of that rings true, you are probably suffering from microstress. By contrast, if your days are full, but you have a clear vision for how you’ll excel and can proactively shape how your use your time and with whom, you might just have a demanding job. You can apply the same thinking to your team, too.

The microstresses we identified in our research with high performers came in three broad categories:

Click to expand


Most of us experience multiple forms of microstress across those categories. Here’s a simple example from our research of how microstress creeps into an ordinary day to derail an otherwise high performing employee. Take Rosa, a recently promoted operations manager in a business services organization, who couldn’t understand why she was receiving increasingly negative feedback. The promotion meant that Rosa (again, a pseudonym) was now reporting to leaders in two different business units, a welcome increase in both her responsibility and visibility in the organization. In the new role, she was now leading a team that was responsible for rapid fixes to crucial software problems that impacted large customers. Three different team leaders with different responsibilities reported to her.

But since the promotion, Rosa felt that she couldn’t do anything right. She was working longer hours, including nights and weekends to try to get on top of the work. At a time when Rosa should have been building morale and establishing her credibility as a leader, she worried if her new team was doubting whether she was up to the job.

On a daily basis, Rosa was kicking herself for not being on top of the job. But what Rosa didn’t recognize at first was that a primary source of her wavering belief in herself were two common sources of microstress.

Part of our identities and our values are the things we take pride in being good at and want to be good at. Microstress that undermines your self-confidence eats away at that. “I started my career excited about being deeply respected for what I do professionally,” she told us. “But this role is so overwhelming now that all I do is make decisions on what balls to drop—not how to be great.”

The microstressors that undermine your confidence don’t have to come from a single person, for example worrying that you’re not living up to your boss’s expectations. Rather, they are more typically a consequence of the demands of work in our hyper-connected world. This can happen in small ways, such as when role design or performance-management systems make it feel almost impossible to succeed. It can happen when you’re embedded in overly inclusive cultures, where the sheer number of people who need to be involved in any decision makes it difficult to move anything forward or pulls us in so many directions that we give up pursuit of what is best or right and fall back to just getting through. Even though you believe you are a conscientious, innovative team player or good leader (and so on), your performance doesn’t reflect those characteristics. You can end up feeling like a failure despite the fact it’s not you who’s creating the disconnect. That’s what was happening for Rosa. The way the job was structured—where she reported up to two different people and was responsible for three different work groups–almost set her up to feel like a failure from the start.

Another common microstress—misalignments—was contributing to the problem. It turned out that each of her key team leads had a slightly different perspective on what a “resolution” to a problem was. For the quality team, resolution meant identifying the root cause; for the engineering team, resolution meant identifying a technical solution. The product management team saw resolution as the final rollout of the fix to customers. Clients, on the other hand, expected all three versions of “resolved” at the same time. And Rosa realized she, too, had never clarified her own expectations with any of the teams, leaving them each to draw their own conclusions about what success looked like. Every person on the team had honestly believed they were doing what was asked of them without realizing how their narrow perspective might have created problems for the team as a whole.

Once Rosa was able to clarify expectations across the different groups, she was able to get everyone on the same page—and the work began to go more smoothly.


What can you to do ensure that those misalignments don’t happen in the first place? Like Gavin did, you can coach your team to work through a simple process to assess any new project:

1. Before taking on a new project: Be careful of the knee-jerk reaction to just say yes without fully investigating what work will be involved. Even if it’s a solo project, ask your employees to think about the time and resources they will need to get this work done and how it might affect other work already on their plate. Ask them to map that out and share your thinking with whoever is assigning you the work before they dive in.

If this is a collaborative project, ask them to think about the relationships and backup resources they’ll need. Who will they be dependent on to get this task done? Will they work together seamlessly or is the collaborative footprint—the people and resources that will play some role in getting the work done-—larger than anticipated?

2. Review the goals, priorities, and stakeholders. Ask your team members to speak with the project sponsor to make sure they clearly understand the goals, priorities, and stakeholders involved. It can be tempting for them to default to “yes” on new projects because they want to convey a positive “can-do” attitude, but they can be open and positive while still saying “I’d like to learn more” before committing. We understand, of course, that they’re not simply free to turn down work a manager asks them to do—especially if your company is under pressure or layoffs are in the air. But they can have a candid conversation with you or the project sponsor about what will be required, what they’ll need help reprioritizing, and what they might be able to put on the back burner. The key here is to have a thoughtful conversation, so you’re all on the same page.

3. Don’t be afraid to clarify expectations to ensure appropriate support exists. Agree to what and when: Early on, take the time with the team to ensure that you reach agreement on the “what” and “when” of the work. Take five minutes to clarify specifics for everyone involved, even tangentially, in the work. Clarify what they are specifically accountable for. Lay out a clear timeline, along with performance expectations.

4. As the project is ongoing, be on the lookout for misalignment and take corrective action early—but positively—even when misses seem small.

Develop your own “sensor system” for uncovering misalignments, so that you can engage quickly to fix problems. This might mean using the last 5 or 10 minutes of a meeting to ask people to state back what they’re committing to in the next cycle, to make sure there are no misinterpretations.


Navigating misalignments is just one way to avoid allowing microstress to affect your team’s performance. But there are many others. In Gavin’s case, he sent a clear message encouraging his team to advocate for themselves by pushing back on unreasonable or less important requests—even when they come from him. “I want to make sure they have a solid plan to help defend themselves again random ‘urgent’ requests and coach them how to be more inquisitive and less assuming,” he shared with us.

And finally, take a moment to consider whether you, as a manager, are unnecessarily causing microstress for your team. In our research, we found that most people recognized that they were often unintentionally causing microstress for others. Removing some of that not only is good for your team but is going to be good for you. Inevitably the microstress we cause others boomerangs back on us in a different form.

The good news for Rosa was that once she understood how misalignments and poor communication were getting in the way of her own performance, she was able to course-correct for both her and her team. We’re happy to report that Rosa is now thriving in the new job. We learned in our research that small adjustments can make a significant difference.

Years of social science research shows us that negative interactions have three to five times the impact of positive one. So removing even just a few microstresses can make an enormous difference. Why leave the greatest leverage opportunity to improve the well-being of you and your team on the table?

Rob Cross is a professor at Babson College and Karen Dillon is a former editor of Harvard Business Review. They are the coauthors of The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems—and What to Do About It.


About michelleclarke2015

Life event that changes all: Horse riding accident in Zimbabwe in 1993, a fractured skull et al including bipolar anxiety, chronic fatigue …. co-morbidities (Nietzche 'He who has the reason why can deal with any how' details my health history from 1993 to date). 17th 2017 August operation for breast cancer (no indications just an appointment came from BreastCheck through the Post). Trinity College Dublin Business Economics and Social Studies (but no degree) 1997-2003; UCD 1997/1998 night classes) essays, projects, writings. Trinity Horizon Programme 1997/98 (Centre for Women Studies Trinity College Dublin/St. Patrick's Foundation (Professor McKeon) EU Horizon funded: research study of 15 women (I was one of this group and it became the cornerstone of my journey to now 2017) over 9 mth period diagnosed with depression and their reintegration into society, with special emphasis on work, arts, further education; Notes from time at Trinity Horizon Project 1997/98; Articles written for 2003/2004; St Patricks Foundation monthly lecture notes for a specific period in time; Selection of Poetry including poems written by people I know; Quotations 1998-2017; other writings mainly with theme of social justice under the heading Citizen Journalism Ireland. Letters written to friends about life in Zimbabwe; Family history including Michael Comyn KC, my grandfather, my grandmother's family, the O'Donnellan ffrench Blake-Forsters; Moral wrong: An acrimonious divorce but the real injustice was the Catholic Church granting an annulment – you can read it and make your own judgment, I have mine. Topics I have written about include annual Brain Awareness week, Mashonaland Irish Associataion in Zimbabwe, Suicide (a life sentence to those left behind); Nostalgia: Tara Hill, Co. Meath.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s