Our Brains Need Breaks From Virtual Meetings
By Bruce Rogers
Date Published: Apr 20, 2021
Add another cause of mental health concern from the past year’s Pandemic-induced, work-from-home requirements. New research from Microsoft shows the potential downside of the virtual workplace, confirming that stress increases over the course of back-to-back virtual meetings.
A study of brainwave activity conducted by Microsoft among people participating in video meetings while wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to monitor the electrical activity in their brains revealed that brain activity associated with stress increased as the number of consecutive video meetings increased. They also point to an easy remedy: taking a break in between meetings.
“The back-to-back meetings that have become the norm over the last 12 months just aren't sustainable,” says Jared Spataro, CVP, Microsoft 365 in a company statement. “Outlook and Microsoft Teams are used by millions of people around the world, and this small change can help customers develop new cultural norms and improve wellbeing for everyone.”
The research was conducted by Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab, who sought to find a solution for meeting fatigue. Researchers from the lab examined fourteen volunteers who participated in two different sessions of meetings. On one day they attended stretches of four half-hour meetings back-to-back, with each call devoted to different tasks such as designing an office layout or creating a marketing plan. On another day, the four half-hour meetings were interspersed with 10-minute breaks. Instead of hurriedly jumping from one meeting to the next, participants meditated using the Headspace app during the breaks.
The participants taking breaks were assigned the same downtime activity—in this case meditation—so the results would be comparable. The sessions took place on two consecutive Mondays; some participants started with back-to-backs while the others had breaks between meetings, and the next week they switched. Additional people joined the meetings with the research subjects to attempt to simulate a typical day interacting with various teams.
The research showed three main takeaways.
1. Breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset,” reducing a cumulative buildup of stress across meetings.
In two straight hours of back-to-back meetings, the average activity of beta waves—those associated with stress— increased over time. In other words, the stress kept accumulating.
Participants given a chance to rest using meditation, showed a decrease in beta activity, allowing participants to start their next meeting in a more relaxed state. In addition, the average level of beta waves held steady through four meetings, with no buildup of stress even as four video calls continued.
2. Back-to-back meetings can decrease your ability to focus and engage.
Brainwave patterns showed positive levels of frontal alpha asymmetry for participants that had meditation breaks, which correlates to higher engagement during the meeting. Without breaks, the levels were negative, suggesting the participants were less engaged in the meeting. This suggests that when the brain is experiencing stress, it’s harder to stay focused and engaged.
3. Transitioning between meetings can be a source of high stress.
For the participants deprived of breaks, researchers also noticed that the transition period between calls caused beta activity, or stress levels, to spike. Beta wave activity jumped again when new check ins started. When people took meditation breaks, by contrast, the increase in beta activity dropped between meetings.
In a company statement, Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group, who oversaw the project stated, “Our research shows breaks are important, not just to make us less exhausted by the end of the day, but to actually improve our ability to focus and engage while in those meetings.”
Coinciding with the research, Microsoft also announced a new feature in Outlook that will allow organisations to change the default Outlook meeting settings at the company-wide level to start or end early. According to the company, “This new feature will help the millions of people who use Outlook carve out time for essential breaks between back-to-back calls.”
You can read more about the research here.