By John I. Kennedy Jr, MD

Well Be Wisdom

This week I stumbled upon an article offering a new perspective on stress and burnout, calling out the repeated small infractions — or micro-stresses — that can lead to major stress. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors define micro-stresses as “tiny little assaults” that we all experience routinely. These daily events occur so frequently that we barely notice most of them. Although the impact of each individual micro-stressor might be insignificant, the sum of their large numbers becomes substantial. Micro becomes macro

Through research done in the corporate world, the investigators have developed a categorization scheme of three distinct micro-stress types:

• Events that drain our personal capacities. Unspoken tensions create stress when they generate additional work or reduce our ability to do what we already have on our plate: a supervisor with unrealistic deadlines, a friendly coworker who can’t pick up on cues that you are to busy for a chat, an lab partner who leaves shared workspace in disarray

• Interactions that deplete our emotional reserves. Some micro-stresses cause us harm through negative feelings that drain our emotional reserves: worry for people we care about, uncertainty over the impact of our actions, fear of repercussions, or simply feeling drained by certain types of interactions

• Influences that challenge our identity or values. Most of us like to think that we have a clear set of values and identity that guide our actions, at work and at home. Interactions that routinely create friction with those values or challenge your sense of self can be emotionally exhausting

In their paper (a short 6-8 minute read) there is a helpful grid that I found useful in identifying some micro-stresses from my own experience.

Armed with a newly-identified list of micro-stressors, you can begin to address them with these three strategies:

1. Isolate and act on two to three micro-stressors. Don’t try to overcome the swarm all at once. Get clear about a couple of things that happen frequently, and work on a rational way to address the root cause.

2. Invest in relationships and activities that keep the micro-stresses in perspective. Embrace the power of exercise to clear our minds, and invest in a trusted close relationship to subtract micro-stresses from the cumulative load.

3. Distance or disconnect from stress-creating people or activities. We can’t escape every stress, but setting and holding clear boundaries can help minimize the effects.

We can’t make all sources of stress go away, but these approaches can help us diminish the impact that they might otherwise have on us. Join me in trying them out.


May 12, 2023