Managing Microstress for a Healthy and Productive Workplace

The Microstress Effect (Book Cover)The Next Practices Weekly call series has become a well-attended and wide-ranging discussion for HR leaders each Thursday at 11am ET / 8am PT. On this week's call, i4cp CEO Kevin Oakes and Senior Research Analyst Tom Stone facilitated a conversation with special guests Rob Cross, Professor at Babson College and co-founder & Director of the Connected Commons, and Karen Dillon, former Editor of Harvard Business Review. Here are some highlights from the call:

  • Cross and Dillon are co-authors of the newly released book "The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems--and What to Do about It", published by Harvard Business Review Press. (Amazon)
  • What is microstress? Cross and Dillon define it as moments of stress, triggered by the people in our professional and personal lives, that are so routine that we barely register them, but whose cumulative toll is debilitating.
  • Microstress can impact people in three ways:
    • By reducing their personal capacity, e.g., needing to deal with your boss changing strategic direction and tone over curt email, or jumping between back-to-back 30-min meetings
    • By reducing their emotional reserve, e.g., by compassionately confronting negative feedback with an employee or trying to be present for a late family dinner after work
    • By impacting their personal identity, e.g., receiving a message from leadership with aggressive sales targets or missing your child’s bedtime to tuck them in.
  • Cross and Dillon described what neuroscience tells us about the impact of microstresses on our brains:
    • As microstresses accumulate, our “working memory” shrinks, responsiveness and attention decrease. It gets harder to diagnose and act when we feel out of sorts.
    • While “fight or flight” is not invoked, our bodies still absorb the stress – higher blood pressure, heart rate, hormonal and metabolic changes.
    • Social stress within two hours of a meal adds 104 calories – 11 pounds a year.
  • In their book, Cross and Dillon sort microstresses into 14 types in the three categories regarding personal capacity, emotional reserve, and personal identity (see slides).
  • One critical way to deal with the impact of microstresses is to focus on building up your resilience. Cross and Dillon emphasize doing this by focusing on the variety of people in your network and focusing on the distinct types of relationships you have with each.
  • They described some key practices that about 10% of people they studied regularly do to achieve better results in the face of microstresses (see slides).
  • Cross and Dillon concluded with the following five key takeaways:
    • Adapt negative interactions and invest in connections that create resilience – don’t just persist.
    • Invest in dimensionality – at least 2 and preferably 3 groups outside your profession -- reach back to passion;  re-engage dormant ties; alter one existing activity to pull you into groups.
    • Devote 15 minutes every day to being present and proactive with those you care most about (i.e., your inner 5).
    • Add authenticity and repeat commitment to your top 15. Refresh this group as life evolves – 7 8-minute calls.
    • Welcome new relationships! And lean into micro-moments of connection (with colleagues and strangers)

Links to resources shared on the call: