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Back-to-back meetings are a disaster for productivity and mental health

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For office and remote workers alike, back-to-back meetings are a disaster for productivity and mental health. This is according to a new research from Microsoft, which analyzed the brain activity of 14 volunteers to understand the effects of consecutive work meetings.

Hooking them up to electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment (essentially, a cap designed to monitor the brain’s electrical activity), Microsoft split the test subjects into two groups. The first group faced multiple consecutive meetings, while the second were given short breaks in-between.

All sessions took place on a Monday, and while one group did not get a chance to rest, the other had the opportunity to use a meditation app between meetings.

To minimize errors, the tests were effectively conducted twice. Half of participants started with back-to-back meetings, while others had breaks, and they swapped places the following Monday. 

More stress, less engagement

Analyzing the results of the test, the researchers concluded that, first and foremost, breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset”, reducing cumulative buildup of stress across meetings.

Secondly, back-to-back meetings often result in stress spikes. “You’re coming to the end of the meeting, knowing you have another one coming right up, and you’re going to have to switch gears and use your brain to think hard about something else,” explained Michael Bohan, Senior Director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group. 

Finally, constant meetings decrease the ability to focus and engage. When volunteers took breaks to meditate, their brainwave patterns showed positive levels of frontal alpha asymmetry, which is said to correlate with higher engagement. 

Those without breaks had negative levels, which led the researchers to conclude they were “withdrawn, or less engaged in the meeting”. In other words, breaks are not only good for wellbeing but also for the ability to work, as they allow us to stay focused and engaged.

To tackle the problem, Microsoft has added a new feature in Outlook, which automatically adds breaks to longer and back-to-back meetings. Whether or not people will use it, we’ll have to wait and see.