The Overlooked Dangers of Microstresses at Work

In my recent podcast interview with Rob Cross, co-author of The Microstress Effect with Karen Dillon and co-founder of the research consortium Connected Commons, we dug into the surprising impacts that minor, everyday stresses can have on employees’ health, engagement, and organizations’ effectiveness.

While massive crises understandably capture our attention and cause stress, Cross’ research shows that it’s actually an accumulation of microstresses over time that does the most damage. As collaboration has increased across flatter, more networked organizations, moments of microstress are on the rise.

What exactly are microstresses?

Cross outlined three main categories:

  1. Misalignments with co-workers that drain your capacity. For example, you come to alignment during a meeting, and after the meeting everyone starts pulling in different directions.
  2. “Small misses” from colleagues that force team members to compensate. For example, you might be involved in multiple teams working on different projects. If other team members consistently finish only 95% of the work, you’ll end up carrying the burden in multiples.
  3. Challenges to identity happen more slowly and can be more subtle to identify. They occur when you face pressure from leaders to oversell or deliver efficiencies.

Why do microstresses matter?

They have physical effects like spiked cortisol, yet fly under the radar so we don’t change our behaviors. Hundreds of these stresses compound daily and lead to burnout, health issues, and disengagement over months or years.

How can leaders reduce microstresses?

The key is addressing microstresses before they accumulate. Cross found the “10 percenters” – the happiest high performers – are skilled at shaping negative interactions. They identify a few problematic dynamics and make small pivots to improve them.

As leaders, we need to consider the collaborative footprint of each role and avoid overwhelming people with teams and interactions. We can also promote activities and groups outside work to create more dimensionality in people’s lives.

In the constant busyness of work, it’s easy to overlook microstresses. But monitoring and mitigating them at both the individual and organizational level is crucial for sustaining engagement and performance over the long-term.

Listen to the full interview here.

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