What are Micro-Stresses and How are They Affecting Your Workplace?


Employees are dealing with a lot right now. Whether working from home or returning to offices, there is a lot on people’s plates. From managing their childcare while balancing meetings, emails, instant messages and deadlines to finding things to balance their lives safely in the era of COVID-19, there are no shortage of small things each day that add to stress levels.

Those small things tend to fall under the label of micro-stresses and add up to create a big problem for workplace behaviors and the overall picture of employee mental and physical health. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Internal Medicine) reports that somewhere in the range of 60-80% of primary care visits are related to some type of stress related issue.

Stress is also related to declining performance, lack of motivation and poor quality decision-making. There’s no doubting the role of stress in inducing burnout, detachment and depression, but when you think of stress in this light, you most likely think of bigger issues such as a divorce or a death in the family. Instead of viewing micro-stresses as what they are, we tend to accept them as part of our daily routine rather than being something that we actively need to address.

Causes of Micro-stress

Micro-stresses can come from any area of life, be it our loved ones, clients, colleagues, bosses or any other leader that has an impact on our lives. Research from the Harvard Business Review breaks micro-stresses into three categories. Those which:

  • Drain your personal capacity
  • Deplete your emotional reserves
  • Challeng your identity or values

Each of these has a unique effect on your stress levels. For example, confrontational conversations have the effect of depleting emotional reserves because certain types of interactions have a de-energizing effect and cause us to have concern for the wellbeing or feelings of others, something we cannot control. Unpredictable behavior from a boss or a surge in responsibilities at work or home has the effect of draining our personal capacity.

READ: The State of Mental Health and the Workplace 

Examples are ever present in our day-to-day lives and add up to create an experience that can be frustrating and cumulatively impact employee performance and satisfaction and thus, damage company culture.

Dealing with Micro-stress

It’s important to deal with micro-stresses just as much as any other type of stress. The first step in dealing with any stress is to separate from it. In order to approach any stressor with a clear head, you first have to decompress and let go of the emotions that initially accompany your view of the situation. If you’re managing a situation involving others, it is also important to allow the parties involved time to do this and embrace other activities that make them feel positive.

“All these things add up, and we’re spread so thin. I’ve seen an uptick in myself and others in terms of reactions, fuses that are short, so it’s good to take a pause between the emotion and the response and choose how do we respond in the moment?” said Anne Browing, assistant dean for well-being at the University of Washington School of Medicine in a recent interview with The Spokesman Review.

READ: How to Build Trust in HR in the COVID-Era Workplace 

Browning noted the effect of COVID-19 in particular and the amount of uncertainty it has created around so many aspects of our lives.

“It’s been an incredibly challenging time from the end of February to now,” Browning said. “We’ve gone through a trajectory from anticipatory stress of not knowing what would happen to now with the potential to see how a bit of exposure, our masks and physically distancing has worked, but also then grieving the loss of everything we anticipated for the spring and potentially the summer.”

Sometimes, the event that seems to spark a reaction is just the last straw. What’s really bothering the person is another issue entirely and stepping away for a moment to talk with people they trust or to isolate the issue and focus on a solution can make all the difference.

In fact, people we trust are important beyond being someone we talk to. Often times, these are people connected to us because they are family or friends that we have a common bond with because of something unrelated to work. These people help provide perspective with their experiences and views. Whether they’ve come into a person’s life through something like church, a book club, a recreational sports team or family friends, the more views and experiences someone has to pull from, the more enriched their own world view and resources to deal with stress will become.

Finally, everyone has to consider their relationship with both people and the workplace and evaluate whether distance is needed for them to limit stress. Perhaps cashing in those vacation days is all that is necessary, but in some cases, severing relationships we are toxic has value for emotional wellbeing. From an HR perspective, this may mean transferring people to different teams or changing a direct report structure in order to distance people from relationships that create a great deal of stress.

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