September 27, 2023

Micro-stress: it’s the small, fleeting moments that zap our energy and productivity

Micro-stress: it’s the small, fleeting moments that zap our energy and productivity

Most of us can recognise when a workplace or situation is stressful. A major deal has gone south, the uncertainty of the massive merger or a toxic boss. Everyone is feeling it and talking about it and, hopefully, the organisation is trying to manage it.

While this sort of big stress is detrimental, so many of my clients (and me and my team for that matter) are more impacted by a subtle yet just as damaging kind of stress; micro-stress. It's the type that goes under the radar but has an accumulative and depleting effect on our energy and wellbeing. And it's happening to all of us, most of the time.

Micro-stress is a term coined by researchers Rob Cross and Karen Dillion and refers to the dozens of interactions we have daily that momentarily annoy or challenge us, but we don’t register them as stressful. A colleague misses a deadline, your manager sends a terse email, your child forgets to pack their lunch. As they’re routine and fleeting, these interactions don’t trigger the normal stress response in our brains to help us cope, instead they embed in our minds and accrue over time.

These moments of micro-stress can also have a ripple effect on those around us; one seemingly inconsequential interaction can affect the way we relate to others, playing out long beyond the initial interaction. It’s why we often get to the end of the day and feel fried, but can’t pinpoint any one reason. And it’s the reason why 63% of employees report feeling burnt out.

The problem is we’ve come to accept micro-stresses as just a normal part of our day. We hardly acknowledge them, but over time they wear us down. What makes them harder to recognise and address is they’re generally triggered by those we’re closest to - our closest working and personal relationships.

Relational drivers of micro-stress

The various sources of micro-stress can be grouped into three main categories; micro-stress that drains your capacity to get things done, micro-stress that deletes your emotional reserves and micro-stress that challenges your identity. I regularly see this play out in the following ways:

  • Lack of clarity about roles and expectations within teams
  • Lack of integrity in keeping agreements
  • Credit not being given or shared where it’s due
  • Unclear feedback
  • Gossip
  • Unpredictable and inconsistent behaviour of a manager
  • Feeling responsible for the success and wellbeing of others
  • Being around people who frequently complain
  • Pressure to pursue goals out of sync with your personal values
  • People who don’t take responsibility and instead blame others

A simple practice to manage micro-stress

Like all psychological stresses, managing micro-stress requires us to work with our mind, meaning the thoughts and beliefs that build up to create the stress-inducing emotions.

Because micro-stresses are often overlooked and ignored until they’ve piled up, a practice of making the unconscious conscious, is key. Here’s how to play the inner game of micro-stress management.

  1. Listen to your body and inner voice: If you have an interaction with someone and walk away feeling vaguely annoyed, uncomfortable or with unasked / unanswered questions, that’s an indication it caused you micro-stress. The body is always the first responder and it never lies. So listen to it when it tells you something is off. Then turn your attention inward to see what thoughts and beliefs are creating this experience.
  2. Watch what you make about you: Stress or upset is almost always caused by making something someone else has said or done about us. We misconstrue their tone or comments, causing us to judge or second-guess them or ourselves. When we play the inner game, we practice seeing the stories we make up and how those stories create negative emotions before exploring how opposites of the story might be equally as true. Seeing the opposite of your story forces the mind to see new possibilities and perspectives that may even be more true and helpful than the current story that’s creating upset.

    We love Byron Katie’s The Work as a tool to reframe the stories we tell ourselves and shift self-limiting beliefs. Give it a go, it's powerful stuff!
  3. Have a keystone conversation: When you first start working with someone, having a conversation about HOW you’ll work together, not just WHAT you’ll work on together can set you up for the best possible working relationship. This great tool from leadership coach Michael Bungay Stainer can help you prepare for these important conversations by reflecting on 5 key questions.
  4. Take micro time-outs, especially in key transitions: Because micro-stress interactions are small and brief, we barely register them and power on with our day not realising the tension is building up. While taking time out to meditate or relax is great, we don’t always have time for this. Instead, take advantage of the small transition points in your day. Sitting quietly at lunch, centring yourself before or after a meeting, walking home. Make a concerted effort not to pull out your phone to scroll on the bus or to pass time, close your eyes and take some intentional breathes instead. Combat micro-stress with micro-calm.
  5. Connect with others: Researchers found people who have connections beyond work and family, such as sporting, volunteer or networking groups, were better equipped to handle micro-stress. Having diverse connections helped them keep things in perspective. Even something as simple as a weekly basketball game with friends can offer moments of authentic connection that soften the blow of micro-stresses.

In our hyper-connected world, no-one is immune to micro-stress and it’s taking a toll on our collective wellbeing. Stepping back to acknowledge moments of stress and consider how our mindset and behaviours play a part is crucial. It's all about mastering our inner game so we can better show up for ourselves and others.

Ready to make some changes?

If you’d like to explore ways to reduce micro-stress and improve your overall wellbeing and productivity, our Adaptive Leaders and Adaptive Teams programs are for you.

Reach out for a chat if you’d like to find out more.

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