Don’t Let Micro-Stresses Burn You Out 

We all have days when we go home exhausted, fall into bed, turn off the light, and drift into a fitful sleep. You might chalk it up to a difficult project, client, or boss stressing you out. But what you might not realize is that there is much more contributing to that exhaustion. 

Stress comes to us all in tiny little assaults throughout our day — what we call “micro-stresses.” And it’s coming from sources you might never have considered. The volume, diversity, and velocity of relational touch points (the way we routinely communicate and collaborate with others) we all experience in a typical day is beyond anything we have seen in history, and cumulatively they are taking an enormous toll on our health and our productivity at work. 

You probably don’t need us to tell you that stress makes you more susceptible to chronic illness and mental health conditions, such as depression. By some estimates, 60-80% of all doctor visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Stress is so harmful to employees that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared stress a hazard of the workplace. Stress takes a big bite out of productivity, as stressed-out people tend to make lower-quality decisions and are often less motivated, innovative, and productive in their work. Ultimately, unrelieved stress can lead to burnout, which is characterized by exhaustion, detachment, and poorer performance at work 

The problem is that most of us have come to accept micro-stresses as just a normal part of a day. We hardly acknowledge them, but cumulatively they are wearing us down. And what’s worse is that the sources of these micro-stresses are often the people — in and out of work — with whom we are closest. We have identified 12 common “relational” drivers of stress (see chart below) that are likely taking a significant toll on your well-being, without you necessarily being aware of their impact. Until you recognize these sources of stress, you can’t begin to address them. 

Micro-stressors pose a different dilemma than we have seen before so we need new tools for mitigating them. Here are three promising approaches. 

Isolate and act on two to three micro-stressors 

These have typically become things we’ve considered to be “normal” in our lives that if altered can have a significant impact. Micro-stressors create emotional build-up that needs to be released before you can think rationally about a constructive response. So the first step is to decompress — hit the pause button, close the laptop, and undertake an activity that is self-affirming and that absorbs you so “the nonsense of all the things that bother you melts away.” When you narrow the list of micro-stressors you’re focusing on to two or three, it’s easier to find time and energy to vent, if that’s helpful to you. Our stressors often look different after we’ve had a chance to distance ourselves from the “noise” of anxiety or defensiveness. Conversations with trusted people in our network can help to unpack what’s really bothering us and why, or reframe and see our stressors in a different light. We can then act 

and know that we’re taking direct aim at the source of our stress, for example by having an awkward-but-crucial conversation that can transform a relationship, by pushing back on unreasonable demands or dysfunctional behaviors, or by strengthening the network of people who can help buffer us from negative interactions. 

Invest in relationships and activities that keep the less consequential micro-stresses in perspective.  

To be sure, there are truly important mindfulness practices — like meditation or gratitude journaling — that can help on this front. And, of course, maintaining physical health through exercise, proper nutrition, and good sleep habits is probably the most important lever we have for combatting stress today. But there are also important relational solutions: people who have greater dimensionality in their lives and broader connections just don’t experience micro-stressors in the same way; they are able to keep them in perspective. When we talk to people who tell a positive life story, they often have cultivated and maintained authentic connections that come from many walks of life — athletic pursuits, volunteer work, civic or religious communities, book or dinner clubs, friends from the local community, and so on. Interactions in these spheres can broaden their identity and “open the aperture” on how they look at their lives. Key to riding above the sea of micro-stressors are relationships that generate a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives — not just in the nature of our employment, but in the connections that sustain and define us beyond our work. 

Distance or disconnect from stress-creating people or activities.  

Over time, it’s not always easy to detect when a friend or colleague is routinely causing you stress, rather than lifting you up. But that’s what makes it all the more insidious. We can become intertwined, both personally and professionally, with people who routinely leave us feeling emotionally depleted. Take a step back and evaluate the relationships in your life over which you have control — and make an effort to create some distance in the ones that create more stress than joy. To be clear, stress-creating relationships are not just negative or toxic ones. They can be people that we enjoy spending time with, but that enable unproductive behaviours (“Come on, you can finish the project tomorrow, let’s check out that new restaurant tonight!) or those who routinely leave us stranded with work because they haven’t come through on what they promised (“I didn’t finish the report, let me give you my notes and you can take it from here…”). You don’t have to disconnect from the people you enjoy being around, but you do have to recognize their effect on your mental and physical well-being and try to put some boundaries around those relationships. 

We don’t have to accept micro-stresses as destiny. Stress patterns are often predictable, and if we see them for what they are, we can build the support network, mindset, and constructive responses that we need to head them off. As one leader told us, “I’m just going to lay down some new rules that may upset the cart at first, but in the long run, are going to make me a better contributor, because I won’t feel frazzled all the time.” Once you learn to recognize the patterns of micro-stressors in your own life, you, too, will be able to put the proper conditions in place to mitigate them. 

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