Have you had days that exhaust you extraordinarily without any particular reason why? There’s no traumatic event or unpleasant encounter that stands out, no urgent work deadline or health issue weighing on you, nothing hovering in the background that you failed to take care of at home. Yet you feel anxious or beaten down just the same, and perhaps worse, you have no idea why.
There’s a common but little-understood reason for that exhaustion. We call it “microstress”—brief, frequent moments of everyday tension that accumulate and impede us even though we don’t register them. Unlike stress triggered by a notable anxiety-producing event (a sharp conflict with a friend or colleague, a health scare), microstress is hard to spot because it is baked into our daily lives. And often it arrives through the people closest to us, making it more difficult to either admit or avoid.
Our own recent research, which included in-depth interviews with 300 successful people working at a range of companies, helped us uncover the invisible toll of microstress. We initially set out to determine how these high performers build and sustain networks, but we soon noticed something else going on. Contrary to how their employers saw them, many felt on the verge of burnout, suffering from a constant pulse of difficulties that few of them had recognized.
What does microstress look like? At work, it can stem from a disagreement in a meeting that you sense but remains unspoken, a colleague who routinely drives incremental work back to you, or frequently shifting expectations from your boss. At home, it could come from hearing about a family member habitually forgetting to take their medicine or a text from your child about a problem that turns out to be momentary.
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