Learn to Thrive at Work and in Life

I love Rob Cross’s writings on collaborative overload, so I was excited to learn that Cross, the Edward E. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College, and former Harvard Business Review editor Karen Dillon, have a new book, The Microstress Effect. As I write this, the book isn’t out yet, but will be soon (release date April 18, 2023). Harvard Business Review Press gave me an advance reader’s copy, and I wanted to write about it while the highlights were still fresh in my mind.

What is ‘Microstress’?

According to the authors, microstress is “a force in our everyday lives that we aren’t even aware of”. We can’t help but notice the big things in our world that cause us unusual amounts of stress and pain. But, we may not notice the small, continual stresses that wear us down, day after day. Examples of microstresses include: having to give unpleasant news to your life partner; a colleague not quite finishing the work they’d promised to get to you on deadline; an unpredictable leader or manager; draining interactions with family or friends; stressful emails, worries about a child who is struggling, etc. This relentless accumulation of small daily stresses is so substantial, according to Cross’ research, that it “threatens to derail otherwise promising careers and lives”. Yikes.

As one would expect from a book penned by one of the top leadership experts in the world, The Microstress Effect is packed with extremely specific tips and strategies for people who struggle to navigate today’s complex work contexts. Whether you’re a leader trying to manage people (and finding that you often get stuck with more work than you should), or you’re struggling with organizational and team dynamics, you’ll find lots of tactical info and examples.

That said, I’d like to share some of the gems that apply not just to work, but to our greater lives as well.

Microstress comes from the people we are closest to, personally and professionally.

This was one of the most eye-opening aspects of the book for me. The connections in our lives “trigger an avalanche of microstress that extends far beyond a lengthy to do list or full calendar”. And it’s not just due to the various related demands or challenging conversations. Layers of emotional complications make our more intimate interactions the most draining.

Cross and Dillon emphasize the phenomenon of “emotional contagion”. Our sensitive brains pick up and absorb the emotional states and stress of those around us. As a “highly sensitive person”, I relate to this. You can build in buffers to contagious stress, by intentionally spending more time with people who give you energy and joy. If possible, try to limit or minimize negative exposures. Take steps in the moment to shake off or let go of “contagious” negativity, rather than carrying it forward through your life.

Be aware of how you create microstresses for others.

One story that really stood out to me, was about a manager who sent an email request that sent an entire group into a tailspin. This note was sent at the end of the day, with an urgent tone, but very little detail. The entire team went into overdrive in response. They tried to not only figure out the request, but it get it done ASAP.  Because of the late-in-day email, this took place during an evening that should have been used to recover from work. Don’t be the person who sends an email like this, if you can help it.

In contrast, another story shares how one leader dramatically improved the amount of inefficient, stressful communication habits in their team. Together, they brainstormed ways to decrease communication overload. Ideas included: putting the request and timeline in an email subject line; using bullets to communicate, instead of lengthy paragraphs; no late-day emails, and my favorite: “don’t hide what you are asking for in the eighth paragraph”.

An intentionally multi-dimensional life can make microstresses inconsequential.

At points throughout the book, the authors note that our worlds get more complicated as we grow through our lives and careers. We have more responsibilities at work and home, and less time for the activities and people that made our lives rich when we were younger and more “free”. This pattern makes us more vulnerable to microstress, and can also severely impact our health and well-being.

Cross and Dillon identified a notable group of “ten percenters” within the high performers that they studied. These people were more resilient to microstress, because they somehow managed to protect “rich, multidimensional lives, through small moments of authentic connection through others”.

I was particularly intrigued by their suggestions in this area. For example, getting involved in fitness-promoting initiatives offered by your workplace (whether it’s a lunch hour boot camp, or a running club, or some other fun, active activity) improves your health and ability to manage stress. In addition, it connects you to people in your organization that you might not otherwise meet. This can build a robust network to draw on, as you face work-related challenges.

Also, one case study modelled how defining success through key roles in your life (i.e. being a physically healthy person, a family member, a concerned citizen, a friend) can help you map out clearly how you spend your time – both at work, and outside work. One of the most effective ways of living a rich life on limited time, is to blend these roles together, for example spending time with friends on a community project you all care about.

In the words of the authors, “to enjoy overall well-being, you must develop strategies not only to combat stress, but also to help you live the life you want to live through resilience, physical health and purpose”. This reminder, for me, was the most powerful message I got from this very useful book.

Related articles:

Journaling About Stress and Trauma Heals Your Body

7 Non-Destructive Ways to Cope with Stress

3 Signs It’s Burnout and Not Just Stress

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