Author: José Manuel Cotilla Conceição

The Video Conference Fatigue

Research proves your brain needs a break

Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet… probably one (or more) of these programmes became your main communication tool when the pandemic kicked in.

No more meeting people in the office, talking to colleagues in front of the coffee machine, working with people face-to-face, dealing with stakeholders in designated meeting rooms or simply enjoying the interaction with others.

Your agenda is now fuller than usual. No locations, just links. Lots of them.
9 o’clock, the first meeting starts. When the session ends, the next starts. Then another one. Another-another one. Late for the one that comes after. When you realise it, it is the end of your shift and you had no gap in between. No time to stretch your legs, refill your bottle of water or take a break outside and catch some fresh air.

It didn’t use to feel this exhausting. So, do the video meetings have anything to do with how drained you feel?

There is research that answers that question.

Photo by Standsome Worklifestyle on Unsplash

Microsoft has shed some light after identifying a pressing concern in our new era of remote and hybrid work.

The company’s researchers confirmed what many of us have perceived during the past year: Back-to-back virtual meetings are strong stressors.

There is good news too.

“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,” says Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group, who oversaw the project.

Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab aimed to find a solution for the fatigued caused by long sessions in front of the screen with back-to-back meetings. Researchers studied how people interact with technology, asking individuals taking part in this study to wear electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment during their working routines.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

The findings reveal three key conclusions

During the studies, volunteers were divided into two groups. Both groups had a 2-hour straight video meeting. One group was given the chance to take breaks, others didn’t.

The average activity of the beta waves of the volunteers increased overtime on a 2-hour straight meeting when they didn’t have the possibility of taking a break. Long-story short: without a break, the stress kept accumulating throughout the session.

The group of participants who were given the chance to take a break displayed results showing how the beta activity dropped, allowing their brains for a ‘reset’. This pause allowed them to start the next meeting in a more relaxed state. Most importantly, the beta waves levels remained still through the four meetings scheduled with no buildup or carryover stress.

: Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab | Brown Bird Design

The results are drawn from the same study, having a set of participants taking breaks between video conferences while others did not take breaks.

On this occasion, the focus is on the level of engagement of the participants. Let’s have a look first at the results:

Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab | Valerio Pellegrini

Brainwave patterns of frontal alpha Assymetry are used to determine the level of engagement and attention retention of individuals.

The brain patterns showed positive levels to those individuals who were given the chance of taking a break. These results correlate to higher engagement, better focus and levels of motivation.

Without the break, the other participants displayed negative results. This suggests that the individuals were not focused, not engaged and possibly withdrawn from the session. This is mainly due to how we process stress and its impact on our main and body. The more stressed we are, the harder it gets to stay focused and engaged.

Let’s go back to the beta levels we spoke on the first points. On the next chart also illustrated by Valerio Pellegrini, we continue extracting results from the two set of participants: those who took no break, and those who did.

Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab | Valerio Pellegrini

Participants without breaks have an increasing stress pattern activity. We can also observe how a number of spikes are identified between sessions.

When we have several sessions a day, we may have different roles in each one of them. Each meeting requires independent preparation and, when facing back-to-back meetings, that preparation time is inexisting. The spikes of stress display the uncertainty and unrest that we feel when we know we need to change hats, move into another topic, change context, without time in between. No time to rest, no time to think.

However, when looking at the results of those who did have a break, we can see how that ‘reset’ we spoke before lowers the stress levels of the individuals.

Conclusion

The antidote to meeting fatigue is simple: taking short breaks.

The WellBeing Thesis says: “Relaxing and social breaks have been found to be particularly beneficial. A relaxing break can help to facilitate recovery, by returning your mental and psychical functional systems to their baseline. Additionally, a relaxing break can help to reset your mood, thereby promoting positive wellbeing and reducing stress”.

Stanford University did a parallel research finding similar results and issuing a number of recommendations. Giving yourself permission to do audio only for a while each day, position the camera far away and pace around, or just turn off the self-view are some examples

Ultimately, the solutions cannot be entirely individual, they need to be structural. Employers shall develop and implement sustainable working policies. Ensuring that people have sufficient breaks during their shifts, and that their working routines are attainable.

The importance of coping strategies when dealing with stress

Stress, which can be projected through emotional or physical tension, arises from how you interpret life’s happenings as they take place.

Coping (or not) depends on your current headspace and mindset. When reaching unbearable levels, we might be avoiding the situation as an escape.

It is important to develop coping strategies for dealing with stress.

Read more about it with my related article:

About the author

José Manuel Cotilla Conceição is a Doctor in Education passionate for developing innovative resources for Education using ICT. He has published a research book exploring teachers beliefs about the use of ICT in foreign language courses through different countries.
Having led and coached international individuals and teams from+70 nationalities and+48 languages, he feels at home in cross-cultural environments.

Head of International Public Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement | Professor in Intercultural Management | Personal and Professional Development Project Manager

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