Research Shows Your Brain Works Differently When You Take Breaks. Here’s Why.

Research Shows Your Brain Works Differently When You Take Breaks. Here’s Why.

Back-to-back online meetings can be mentally draining. Is there a way to make them less stressful? Check out this study by Microsoft showing how regular breaks can reduce meeting fatigue and stress.

Key Takeaways

  • Transitions between meetings are moments of heightened stress.
  • Short breaks between meetings help to support engagement and focus throughout the day.
  • Back-to-back meetings increase stress, but short breaks between meetings allows the brain to reset and relax.

Back-to-Back Meetings Change Your Brain

As the pandemic left abundantly clear, back-to-back virtual meetings can be stressful and exhausting. Now that remote and hybrid work have become common, so have back-to-back online meetings. However, they may not be the best practice to promote well-being and productivity. 

A 2023 remote work survey of 1500 managers and employees found that 56% viewed meetings as their main source of fatigue, with an additional 20% viewing on-screen meeting time as a key contributor to fatigue. 

Research shows videoconferencing results in changes in the human nervous system that are indicative of greater fatigue.

The increase in online meetings has created what is known as Zoom fatigue or videoconference fatigue. Recent research has shown that this is not just a subjective feeling: objective neurophysiological measurements have indicated that, compared to a face-to-face setting, videoconferencing (in this case, in the context of a university lecture) results in changes in the human nervous system that are indicative of greater fatigue. 

How Short Breaks Allow Your Brain to Reset, Boosting Focus and Engagement

Therefore, Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab, which examines how humans interact with technology, aiming to find a solution to help manage videoconference fatigue, set out to test the effects of regular short breaks on meeting fatigue. 

In a study with 14 people who usually work remotely, researchers asked participants to take part in video meetings while wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap to monitor their brain wave activity. All volunteers participated in two different meeting sessions one week apart. In one session, participants attended a two-hour stretch of four half-hour meetings back-to-back, with each call devoted to different tasks. In the other session, the four half-hour meetings were broken up with 10-minute breaks. Half of the participants started with back-to-back meetings while the others had breaks between them, and the next session they switched. To ensure that results would be comparable, all participants meditated during their breaks using the Headspace app

EEG caps were used to measure beta wave activity, which is associated with stress, and a brainwave pattern known as frontal alpha asymmetry (the difference between right and left alpha wave activity in the frontal area of the brain), which indicates whether people are engaged or withdrawn.

When participants had two continuous hours of back-to-back meetings, an increase was observed over time in their average beta wave activity, indicating a buildup of stress. Interestingly, during back-to-backs, there was a spike in beta activity in the transition between calls, indicating a peak in stress levels. So, in addition to the accumulation of stress with time passed in meetings, the anticipation of another meeting immediately after heightened their stress response.

But when participants had breaks between meetings, their average beta wave activity remained stable across meetings. Although beta activity increased as each meeting progressed, suggesting increased stress caused by each meeting, breaks reset beta activity and stress, allowing participants to start the following meeting more relaxed. This indicated that breaks between meetings can prevent stress from building up and reduce meeting fatigue.

Participants taking breaks also showed positive levels of frontal alpha asymmetry, indicating higher engagement and focus during the meetings. Those who had continuous meetings showed negative levels of asymmetry, indicating that they were more withdrawn in the meetings. This suggested that stress reduction promoted by breaks was also important for participants’ capacity to be focused and stay engaged during the meeting. 

In the study, participants meditated during breaks. It is possible that doing something relaxing that takes your mind off work during the break may have also contributed to its relaxing effects. So actively taking a few minutes to reset your mind, be it with meditation or another relaxing activity such as taking a walk or stretching (or anything you find relaxing) may help reap the most benefits from the break. 

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