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power points

It’s usually not one thing that makes us feel overwhelmed in our work. It’s a series of things, small frustrations and complications that build through chain reactions over time. Babson College leadership professor Rob Cross and Harvard Business Review contributing editor Karen Dillon have given these annoyances a name: Microstress. And they warn although individually small, the irritations can lead people to become powder kegs of stress and put their health in danger.

“Because microstress comes from the people we are closest to personally and professionally, there are layers of emotional complications, too. We can’t simply shake it off at the end of the day. Microstress seeps into our thoughts, saps our energy and diverts our focus. Little by little, it’s stealing our lives,” they write in The Microstress Effect.

We’re familiar with the notion of stress. But this is different. Stress is coping with a mercurial boss whose daily moods permeate the office. Microstress is the moment your well-intended boss shifts your priorities yet again, the authors note.

Microstresses deplete your time, derail your own goals, make you sacrifice your personal commitments, drag loved ones into your work stress when you have to back out of a commitment to deal with a problem and damage relationships in your network if you have to call in personal favours while enduring microstress.

They come in three types:

  • Capacity-draining microstresses like small performance misses by colleagues you have to deal with, unpredictable authority figures and inefficient communication practices.
  • Emotion-depleting microstresses like confrontational conversations, lack of trust and managing and advocating for others.
  • Identity-challenging microstresses like conflict with your personal values, interactions that undermine confidence and draining or other negative interactions with family and friends.

Prof. Cross and Ms. Dillon urge you to consider that list and identify two or three microstresses in your life you can push back on. You’re not looking for total transformation but some manageable ways to improve, perhaps altering instances where the microstress might occur or lengthening the time between appearances.

One executive asked his college-aged daughter to stop texting him with every passing complaint about the day – many of which would be quickly forgotten by her but have him worrying as he worked. Instead, he took to calling her while driving home from the office and if she was free they could have a deeper conversation. Another person started scheduling 10-minute breaks between the meetings that were grinding her down.

Focus on creating moments of connection with others as an antidote to microstress. As life gets busy, we tend to fall out of groups and passions that once engaged us, work becoming the sole focus of our lives. You need to rebuild relationships across the varied interests and hobbies you hold.

“One of the most important insights we gained from the happiest people in our research was that other people are not only critical to helping you keep microstress in perspective but essential to helping you build a full, rich life. Few people find happiness in isolation,” Prof. Cross and Ms. Dillon observe. “You need a variety of relationships (not only close friends) to help you get through the reality of living in a cauldron of microstress.”

They also warn against losing “dimensionality.” You are more than your work. You might be a concerned citizen, a family member or a friend. You may be spiritual. You may have concerns about physical health. Think about those various dimensions as you go through life. Schedule activities with people and groups that reflect your multi-dimensional self. Look for opportunities to connect with people beyond your closest circle of friends, which will take you away from those who reinforce self pity or anger at microstresses.

Finally, look at how you create microstresses for others. Cut it out.

Quick hits

  • Productivity expert Laura Vanderkam found when 4,000 people tracked their use of time for a week as part of an annual challenge she runs, they increased their satisfaction with how they spent their lives because recording aspects of using their time that were wasteful made them less likely to squander it.
  • If we stop writing, allowing ChatGPT to take over, where will our ideas come from and how will we grow, asks MarketingProfs chief content officer Ann Handley? “Writing is how we work through what we do not understand. It’s how we realize that we don’t have all the answers. Writing is how we try to see some truth,” she says.
  • When should a job candidate tell an employer they need a disability accommodation? Workplace advice columnist Alison Green says wait until you have a job offer and then raise it as part of your negotiations.
  • Next time you procrastinate, try the DUST method to tease out what’s behind your behaviour, suggests neuroscience researcher Anne-Laure Le Cunff. The acronym stands for the task being Difficult, Unclear, Scary or Tedious.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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