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How micro-stresses at work can affect your mental health

stress work Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed while using a laptop in her home office work
Sometimes minor stresses at work can build up — and lead to bigger problems like burnout. Photo: Getty

You spill your coffee over your keyboard. Your laptop dies as soon as you’re trying to send an email. When you’ve finally fired it back up, you manage to send the email without the necessary attachments. We all encounter minor annoyances, but most of the time we can brush them off as a bad day. Sometimes, though, these stresses can build up — and lead to bigger problems like burnout.

Stress at work can easily creep up and it’s something that lots of us struggle with. According to YouGov research, half (52%) of all workers in the UK say they feel very or fairly stressed at work. Only 10% say they don’t feel stressed at all while working.

“More than half of us apparently experience moderate to high levels of stress at work and the figures are on the rise,” says Nicoleta Porojanu, a therapist and Counselling Directory member, says.

“What makes it worse is that sometimes even minor unresolved stress in the work environment can intrude on other areas of life and lead to unhappiness, mental health struggles and a poor quality of life. Often small stresses at work can build up and create bigger problems in our lives.”

What are micro-stresses?

Micro-stresses are small moments of stress that seem manageable on their own, but they can build up to create bigger issues. Although it’s difficult to spot, according to Rob Cross and Karen Dillon, co-authors of new book The Microstress Effect, it can take its toll on people and lead them to feel burnt out.

One of the reasons micro-stress is so dangerous is that it’s tricky to recognise. Although micro-stresses can increase our blood pressure, heart rate and trigger the release of stress hormones, we may not feel stressed in an emotional sense.

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However, the physiological response can still take its toll on our health. Essentially, our bodies are still reacting to the stress, even if we aren’t registering it. This relentless accumulation of small, stressful events — even those we don’t really think twice about — can have a drastic effect on our health.

Over time, these micro-stresses can deplete our energy and leave us feeling exhausted and burned out. Left unchecked, they can also chip away at your sense of self, your motivation and your sense of purpose, according to Cross and Dillon.

How to manage micro-stress

“Stress at work is part and parcel of everyday life. For many people, a small amount of stress helps to drive ambition and productivity, but stress can easily build up,” says Counselling Directory member and therapist Georgina Sturmer.

First, it’s important to enforce boundaries around your time and to manage how long you spend on your phone or laptop. Constant notifications on Teams, WhatsApp and Gmail can make us feel overwhelmed without us realising, so it’s important to switch off regularly.

“We are all used to being contactable 24/7,” says Sturmer. “Find moments to turn off your devices and think about something else.”

It can also help to share any niggling concerns or annoyances with a friend, so they don’t build up.

“Share your stress with someone you trust, and who will listen to you without judgement. This might be a friend, relative, colleague or a trained counsellor,” Sturmer advises.

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It can be easier said than done, but it is also crucial to try to control your workload.

“Don’t take on more than you can realistically deliver,” she says. “This might involve saying ‘no’ — which might feel unfamiliar or scary. But it may reap rewards if you often find yourself drowning under your workload.”

Setting realistic goals for yourself can also help to manage micro-stresses. And while it’s important to set realistic professional goals, Sturmer says, it’s also key to manage your internal measures of success.

“What expectations are you placing on yourself?” she asks. “Many of us place unrealistic expectations on ourselves which we are unable to meet. This can lead to a sense of failure, which feeds into existing stress levels.”

Finally, self-care is one of the best ways to mitigate stress. Taking regular breaks, getting enough rest, staying hydrated, eating well and getting fresh air is key.

“Think about what you need to fuel your body to stay healthy,” says Sturmer. “Are you proactive about looking after yourself — or does that just sound like another task on the endless to-do list? Be honest with yourself and reflect on how you feel.”

Watch: Study: Workplace stress may affect your sleep

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