Micro-stress: what it is and how to manage it

Last updated on 
August 4, 2020

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Most of us have a very macro perspective of workplace stress. We think of big incidents like burnout, bullying or communication breakdowns, and look for clear deviations from a healthy working pace, pattern and load. But new research confirms that stress can also be cumulative, with lots of “micro-stresses” creating one big ball of anxiety and pressure which can harm both our physical and mental health. By becoming more aware of our individual micro-stresses, we’re in a much better place to deal with them – protecting our wellbeing, as well as our professional performance and enjoyment for our work. So what do we need to know?

What is micro-stress?

It’s no secret that stress is a big, big problem. Last year the World Health Organisation called stress the “health epidemic of the 21st Century”, and 85% of us experience it on a regular basis. When left unchecked, stress can lead to burnout and a whole host of serious health problems. If we think of what’s causing us stress, we usually think of the larger problems in our life, like financial issues, ill-health, or having too much on at work. We might gloss over or not even notice smaller stressors, even though we’re exposed to them every day.

Micro-stresses can be things as small or seemingly insignificant as snoozing the alarm in the morning, getting stuck in traffic on your way to work, coming home to a messy house, or hearing criticism about yourself. We might not give much weight to these incidents, but they put our bodies and brains in a state of near-constant stress. They drain us, whether we notice it or not. It’s like constantly having an app running in the background on your phone; you might not realise it, but sooner or later, it’s going to drain your battery.

The more micro-stresses we experience, the lower our stress threshold becomes, and the more likely we are to react in the wrong way – by getting upset or angry, or feeling anxious or depressed. The reason why micro-stress is so harmful is precisely because we don’t recognise it. Between 60-80% of all doctor visits are for stress-related disorders, yet the insidious nature of micro-stress means we might be totally unaware of the main sources of our anxiety. You can’t begin to address the problem until you’re aware of it – so what are the main drivers of micro-stress?

The causes of micro-stress

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are 12 main drivers of micro-stress, and these can be broken down into three main categories:

  • stresses that drain our personal capacity
  • stresses that deplete our emotional reserves
  • stresses that challenge our identity or values.

Micro-stresses that drain us in a personal capacity include tensions (which are often unspoken) in the ways we work with other people, particularly when they create more work for us or limit our ability to do our job. Common examples include when people don’t deliver reliably, the misalignment of roles or priorities, poor communication standards, erratic behaviour from someone in a position of authority, and an increase in our own responsibilities.      

Stresses that deplete our emotional reserves harm us by creating a pattern of negative thinking or feeling. They can cause us to worry about people we care about, feel unsure about the impact of our actions, feel afraid of repercussions, or just feel drained by a specific type of communication. Common examples of these stressors include confrontational conversations, distrust in your set of connections, feeling responsible for the success or happiness of people you’re managing, or interacting with negative people who make you feel more stressed.

The last set of micro-stresses involve interactions that challenge our sense of self, or undercut the values we have that direct our actions – both at home and at work. This sense of friction can be emotionally exhausting. Examples of these types of stressors include when someone damages your sense of self-confidence, worth or control, feeling forced to pursue objectives that contradict your personal values, and disturbances within your network.

How to manage micro-stress

1. Identify

The first step in managing micro-stress is to identify which stressors are affecting you. Look through the common causes listed above and think about which sound familiar. Try to consider this carefully, as these types of stressors are deeply, and often imperceptibly, embedded in our daily lives. Many of us are used to shrugging off negative interactions or emotions, and some of us might even use that as a coping mechanism, but failing to recognize the fact that we’ve gone through a stressful situation ultimately helps no-one.

💨 What workplace stress looks like

2. Decompress

Once you’ve isolated a few micro-stressors that impact on your life, you’ll be able to recognize them when they occur. When they do, the first thing you need to do is step back and decompress. If you’re working, take a break, and either do an activity that makes you feel good, or talk to someone about what happened, if you find that helpful. Micro-stressors can look very different when we’re able to detach ourselves from the impact of feeling defensive – and venting to people you trust can help you unravel why something upset or stressed you. We can then get more of an insight into the true causes of our stress, and take the necessary steps to counter them.

3. Reflect and invest

If you notice there are specific people or activities that cause you stress, try to disconnect and step back from them – and at the same time, strengthen connections with people who make you feel relaxed. Take time to invest in activities that help keep stress at bay – things like meditation, running, reading, art. Prioritize a healthy diet and make sure to get enough sleep; these two things are much more important than completing an outstanding task, and yet so many of us prioritize work over our own health, often without even thinking about it.

Research suggests that having a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives can significantly reduce the harm micro-stress can cause, so give precedence to connections, relationships and interests you feel support you. Ultimately, the key to managing micro-stress might be to invest more in yourself.


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