Rihanna’s assessment that work-life balance is ‘almost impossible’ is commonly felt by high-performers – research can explain why

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To the outside world, Rihanna looks like she has it all; The superstar with nine Grammys and 14 number-one hit singles just headlined the Super Bowl halftime show, all the while running a billionaire-dollar beauty and lingerie empire, raising her infant son and being pregnant with her second child. 

But really, even Rihanna isn’t immune to the challenges of finding a work-life balance.

“The balance is almost impossible,” she said at Apple Music’s Super Bowl Halftime Show press conference on life as a working mom. “No matter how you look at it, work is always something that’s going to rob you of time with your child. That’s the currency now, that’s where it goes. The magnitude of how much it weighs.”

And her assessment isn’t entirely wrong.

HBR interviewed 300 people from 30 global companies, evenly split between women and men, from 2019 to 2021 and found that many high performers were “powder kegs of stress”. But more interestingly, most of them hadn’t realized it yet.

It wasn’t until deeper into the interview stages that executives would acknowledge that they were struggling to keep up with their high-flying professional and personal lives.

But it wasn’t one big stressful event that was leading them to feel overwhelmed by their pursuit of having it all—it was small “microstresses”.

What are microstresses?

Microstress is different from the normal stress we all know (and loathe).

Stress is your body’s response to a big event or set-back, like in the aftermath of being told you’re up for a layoff; realizing that your salary won’t cover your bills as the cost of living rises; or not being able to return to work on time because all flights home have been canceled and you didn’t bring your laptop on vacation, obviously. 

Meanwhile, microstresses are the small moments of stress in our daily lives that we don’t really pay notice to. Often we brush these off and continue business as usual. For example, it might be your boss changing their mind about a task after you’ve already started it, or a worrying text from your worker flashing on your screen while you’re in a meeting.

But being “micro” doesn’t mean it doesn’t take an enormous toll on our wellbeing in the long run.

The impact of microstresses

Unlike stress, which is usually caused by a “bad guy” like a void-of-emotion boss, microstress is usually unintentionally brought on by those we are closest to. As such, microstress often involves emotional baggage, according to HBR.

For example, someone in your team is struggling so you pick up their work. You justify that it’ll only take 15 minutes of your time but it will help the entire team and you worry that, otherwise, your lagging-behind worker will get in trouble. 

In addition, these events are little and occur often. HBR says that “you’re likely facing dozens a day — and you’ve probably come to accept that this hectic way of living is nothing special”. 

But dismissing these microstresses is not making them go away. Your brain can’t distinguish between different forms of stress, and so your body is still reacting to microstresses even if you’re emotionally unbothered — your blood pressure and heart rate may increase, and it may even alter the way that your body metabolizes food eaten in the hours after being stressed.  

As a result, high-performers who are often guilty of shrugging off minor setbacks may be on the edge of burnout without even knowing it.

HBR warns that, when left unchecked, microstresses can drain your capacity to get things done, chip away at your motivation and sense of purpose, deplete your emotional reserves and negatively impact your relationship with others.

How to cope with microstress

HBR asked their high-performing interviews how they successfully keep microstress in check and came up with three solutions: Push back on the things that may cause microstress; become more attuned to your impact on others; and gain some perspective. 

Practical ways to ways to push back on microstress include saying no to small asks and readjusting your relationship with others to prevent their actions from having an emotional toll on you.

Meanwhile, by becoming more attuned to your impact on others, you’ll be rewarded too. “When we create microstress for others, it inevitably boomerangs in one form or another,” HBR says. So by not being a cause of stress for your team, for example, they’re less likely to act out with resentment and anger. 

Finally, HBR’s research showed that the high-performers who are happiest have other meaningful facets of their lives outside of their work. This enables them to put some of the microstress in their lives into perspective.

Whereas, those who allow their work to become all-consuming, are more likely to allow mircrostresses to pile up until they’re emotionally drowning.

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