How the Right Employee Wellbeing Strategy Impacts Microstress and Burnout at Work

How the Right Employee Wellbeing Strategy Impacts Microstress and Burnout at Work
Employee Wellbeing

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October 10, 2023 16 mins

How the Right Employee Wellbeing Strategy Impacts Microstress and Burnout at Work

How the Right Employee Wellbeing Strategy Impacts Microstress and Burnout at Work

Burnout and languishing threaten individual and organizational productivity and business outcomes. A company’s employee wellbeing strategy can help prevent them by mitigating microstress.

Key Takeaways
  1. Microstresses are small moments of stress that are caused by routine interactions. When allowed to build over time, they lead to burnout.
  2. Many employee wellbeing programs deal with the effects of microstress instead of the root causes.
  3. An employee wellbeing strategy that mitigates and eliminates microstress from the start can help prevent burnout and languishing.
Better Advised 

Misaligned priorities. Surges in responsibility. Confrontational conversations. Individually, these instances of microstress won’t necessarily cause major harm to someone’s overall wellbeing. But over time, these seemingly everyday occurrences can add up to a bigger challenge.

Employers are focusing on wellbeing in ways they never have before. Emotional wellbeing is especially top of mind. Aon’s 2022-2023 Global Wellbeing Survey found that mental health was the most frequently listed employee issue, named in the top five by 41 percent of respondents. While this is not particularly surprising, given the increased attention around mental health over the past few years, the second most listed wellbeing challenge was burnout and languishing at 34 percent. How can a company’s employee wellbeing strategy adequately address this reality?

Burnout is a familiar term to many, but languishing may be less so. “Languishing is a subacute phenomenon,” says Dr. Amitabh Deka, vice president of Health Transformation in Aon’s Health Solutions practice. “There isn’t an immediate need of psychological intervention. But the person isn’t emotionally well, either. Think of it as a lack of wellbeing versus the presence of a disorder.” 

The similarity between burnout and languishing is that they both involve a reaction to stress, or in many cases, an accumulation of microstresses.

What are Microstresses?

Microstresses are small moments of stress caused by routine interactions in our professional and personal lives. As these moments become part of our routine, they blend into the background, making it easy to overlook the cumulative impact on our overall wellbeing. There are three main types of microstress, including:

  • Capacity-draining microstress: These situations can be caused by misaligned roles and priorities, smaller performance misses, unpredictable authority figures, inefficient communication practices and surges in responsibility.
  • Emotion-depleting microstress: Managing and advocating for others, confrontational conversations, lack of trust in ourselves and others, picking up on others’ stress and political maneuvering can all lead to this type of microstress.
  • Identity-challenging microstress: This can be caused by conflict with personal values, undermined confidence, negative interactions with others, including colleagues, and disruptions to relationships and networks.

If microstresses accumulate and go unaddressed, they can lead to problems, including lower productivity and loss of purpose and goals. 

Quote icon

Microstress exists at the intersection of population health and talent. It embodies priorities like the social determinants of health and DE&I, presenting an opportunity to align and activate stakeholders in health, risk and talent.

Majd Khabour
Vice President, Health Solutions, North America

Is This Stress or Microstress?

What’s considered a microstress often doesn’t seem like such small matters. But it’s not that microstresses are smaller or less important — it’s their routine nature and cumulative effect that uniquely define them. 

Stress or Microstress

Treating the Symptoms Versus Treating the Root Causes

Like many employee wellbeing programs, when it comes to emotional wellbeing, most are meant to deal with treatment rather than prevention. Because of that, languishing and burnout are not addressed consistently, as there is no clinical intervention. However, programs are plentiful when the need becomes clinical. 

For example, an employee with a substance abuse issue can be directed through an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) to a treatment program or connected with the appropriate therapy. But that intervention likely comes after several opportunities for intervention or harm reduction are missed along the way. Maybe the employee let the substance abuse issue progress because they were going through a divorce. The failure of that relationship may have been exacerbated by the fact that the employee was experiencing microstresses at work that were ignored.

Employers sometimes also fall short in recognizing the difference between emotional wellbeing as an individual concern and as a structural issue. While everyone’s experience is unique — even those who endure the same microstress may process them differently — there is a systemic issue to deal with as well. The accumulation of microstresses not only affects an individual, but the organization as a whole.

The Accumulation of Microstresses

The Accumulation of Microstresses

Companies can reduce the amount of microstresses endured and their impact by improving their overall approach to wellbeing. While there’s no set blueprint to minimizing microstress, there are best practices that can help:

  • Use existing workplace assessments. Engagement surveys, health risk assessments that include emotional health risk factors, and focus groups will help leaders focus on the drivers of microstresses and burnout. By evaluating the frequency, severity and duration of contributing factors, a company can begin to address root causes.
  • Be proactive in addressing the findings. Once the assessment is complete, leaders should proactively bring internal key stakeholders across different functions to address opportunity areas. A preventative approach can foster a more positive, safe and sustainable workplace culture.
  • Empower managers to align team culture with organizational values. Managers are on the front lines of ensuring wellbeing policies and practices are adopted and encouraged. They can be the biggest drivers of employee wellbeing, both positively and negatively. 
  • Use a data-driven approach to evaluate work design. This allows senior leaders to proactively measure progress over time and use an established process to address emerging issues immediately. 
Quote icon

In order to see a lasting wellbeing cultural change, an organization needs to understand how they contribute to a person's wellbeing positively or negatively.

Elisha Engelen
Vice President, Health Solutions, North America
Better Decisions

Tapping into Existing Wellbeing Programs and Resources

While many initiatives in the emotional wellbeing space are designed around treatment, it’s important to also view them through the lens of microstress prevention and mitigation. One quarter of companies in Aon’s Global Wellbeing Survey said they offered stress, anxiety or depression support. Mental and emotional leadership training and coaching programs were less frequently mentioned, but still a solid avenue to provide managers with the tools needed to combat burnout.

Even initiatives that aren’t solely based in emotional wellbeing can help. Flexible work arrangements, offered by more than half of companies in the survey, can decrease microstress by reducing or eliminating commutes or improving work-life balance. Overall career development plans and communications are another way companies are promoting wellbeing.

Making Wellbeing Part of Your Business Strategy

One thing every company can do regardless of company culture, is make sure that its employee wellbeing strategy is integrated into the larger company strategy. This is critical for a few reasons, one being that it will improve leadership support of the strategy, which can increase its effectiveness. 

A Framework for Wellbeing

A Framework for Wellbeing

A comprehensive and integrated wellbeing strategy addresses both the individual and the organization to change behaviors and context at various levels:
From a benefits standpoint, a mental health parity assessment is a useful tool. Are the company’s mental health benefits on par with those related to physical health? This is important, especially in the U.S., where regulations are being issued to ensure parity.

Employers should also work toward creating a psychologically safe workplace, for which standards are emerging and being codified. A national standard was commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada1 in 2013 for companies looking to create a psychologically safe workplace, which they define as “a workplace that promotes workers’ psychological wellbeing and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health including negligent, reckless or intentional ways.” Similar regulations are being considered in Australia2 and the European Union3.  

Across all dimensions of wellbeing, companies need to balance individual resources, organizational culture, leadership and their teams. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including the care and support of current programs, creating a sense of purpose and belonging, building greater psychological safety, career development programs and ensuring integration between work, life and the community. 

Finally, be willing to talk about causes, not just treatments. Stress, especially microstress, is a huge part of emotional wellbeing — and the key to ensuring both are positively managed starts with a healthy work environment. 


1 Workplace Mental Health - Mental Health Commission of Canada
2 Psychosocial Hazards | Safe Work Australia
3 European Health Union: a new comprehensive approach to mental health | Safety and health at work EU-OSHA

Aon's Thought Leaders
  • Majd Khabour
    Vice President, Health Solutions, North America
  • Dr. Amitabh Deka
    Vice President, Health Transformation, Global
  • Elisha Engelen
    Vice President, Health Solutions, North America
  • Erin Dick
    Vice President, Health Solutions North America

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This document is not intended to address any specific situation or to provide legal, regulatory, financial, or other advice. While care has been taken in the production of this document, Aon does not warrant, represent or guarantee the accuracy, adequacy, completeness or fitness for any purpose of the document or any part of it and can accept no liability for any loss incurred in any way by any person who may rely on it. Any recipient shall be responsible for the use to which it puts this document. This document has been compiled using information available to us up to its date of publication and is subject to any qualifications made in the document.

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