Many of us stack our calendars with back-to-back meetings, especially now that they can occur remotely and kick off in an instant. After all, modern day productivity is all about squeezing the most out of your time, right? Turns out that failing to rest between meetings leads to diminishing returns.

Microsoft has conducted research into the impact of continuous, back-to-back meetings on mental health. The findings confirm what many have thought, that stacked blocks of time, with no breaks in between, can be detrimental to your wellbeing. As we evolve to embrace a hybrid work model, one where videocalls and remote meetings have become the new normal, the importance of this research takes on a new meaning, and a reminder to make time for ourselves in our busy schedules.

This isn’t the first time the corporation, best known for its productivity software, has weighed in the wellbeing of office employees. In the first quarter of 2021, whilst many corporations were feeling the full impact of rolling lockdowns and stay at home orders, Microsoft publicly urged managers and senior staff to make employee work-life balance a priority and work to reduce fatigue factors. This statement came about after the company ran an internal survey among 150,000 employees, finding that employee connectedness fell by nearly 31% as companies transitioned to remote and hybrid work models. After implementing a management style that placed an emphasis on helping individual employees prioritise tasks and manage a healthy work-life balance, Microsoft found the trend of disconnectedness among staff began to reverse.

This Is Your Brain On Meetings

The study involved 14 participants, who were asked to partake in video meetings whilst wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) caps to monitor the level of electrical activity in their brains. Participants were involved in two different meeting scenarios over two consecutive Mondays, with conditions evenly alternated between the participant groups to ensure clean data.

The first scenario involved attending back-to-back meetings, each of 30-minute duration, over a two-hour block. Each meeting was devoted to a different task, such as marketing or office layout designs. On the second day, participants were tasked with attending another four meetings, of same duration, however this time the meetings were buffered with 10-minute breaks in-between. During the scheduled breaks the participants actively meditated using the Headspace app. The scenarios were designed to compare and contrast differing work styles; one hurried and one more focused on wellbeing.

EEG caps measured beta way activity as a stress marker amongst research participants. Source: Microsoft Research.

When participants were able to rest between meetings (those in the wellbeing scenario), beta activity dropped, allowing the individuals to enter the next scheduled meeting in a calmer and more relaxed state

The findings were remarkable, if not expected. Firstly, for those in the back-to-back meeting scenario (two straight hours of meetings), beta wave brain activity increased. This is important as beta waves are an indicator of stress – something you don’t want accumulating over time. Conversely, when participants were able to rest between meetings (those in the wellbeing scenario), beta activity dropped, allowing the individuals to enter the next scheduled meeting in a calmer and more relaxed state. This outcome demonstrates the need for breaks between activities in order to ‘reset’ and safeguard against the build up of stress.

Secondly, it was found that back-to-back meetings decreased participants ability to focus and engage. For those participants who were assigned rolling meetings, the levels of frontal alpha asymmetry, a marker of engagement, was negative in contrast to the positive levels of those who were able to rest between meetings. This indicates that when under stress the brain finds it harder to remain focused and engaged. The antidote appears to be breaks, which not only help our overall wellbeing, but also assist in the ability for us to do our best work and effectively participate.

Finally, the participants who were deprived of breaks demonstrated spikes of beta activity as they transitioned between meetings. The activity rose sharply at the beginning and end of meetings, suggesting that participants were beginning to think hard about the next meeting whilst already on call. Again, those with the ability to meditate during meetings This indicates that jumping from one meeting to another can cause stress levels to spike, and breaks, even short ones, can help make transitioning between meetings less stressful.

Making Smarter Schedules

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.

Speaking to the findings of the most recent research, Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering Group, noted that “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.” Whilst the report provides a strong piece of evidence that employee wellbeing, and productivity, can be improved with smarter time management and a focus on mental health, the company is doing more than just publishing its findings.

Microsoft has also begun adapting its software to take advantage of the insights it has gained through research. Outlook, the company’s email and calendar client widely used in enterprise and consumer settings, will now set defaults to allow users to reduce Teams meetings by five to 15 minutes in a bid to allow for breaks between calls and conversations. Other adaptations include the integration of Headspace meditations into daily Viva Insights, and the introduction of a virtual commute to afford remote employees the ability to schedule more time for wellbeing and restore a sense of work-life balance when working from home.

There are many other strategies that people can adopt to reduce the feeling of creeping stress and help improve their mental wellbeing. This could mean finding ways to reduce screen time, ensuring meetings are intentional, working outside or just take a break ever now and then to stretch your legs.

Overall, the biggest take away is that you need to make time for yourself during the day, because you can’t be at your best if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

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