Burn out is one of the commonest issues we help our clients with. Fatigue, lethargy, poor motivation, irritability and feeling overwhelmed are some of the typical symptoms of a condition simply born of excessive stress with no relief. And it is no wonder since the digital era sees schedules dominated by back-to-back meetings, leaving no time for any breaks. Since the start of the CV19 pandemic when the world pivoted to online meetings we have been strongly advising our clients to take regular breaks throughout the day to protect their mental wellbeing and enable sustained top performance. Why? Because good science supports this approach.
Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab researched the effect of meetings and found that our brains respond very differently when you take breaks between meetings. They studied brain electrical activity using electroencephalogram (EEG). Half the participants worked a stretch of four half-hour meetings back-to-back (i.e. two continuous hours), each meeting covering a different tasks. The others had four half-hour meetings separated by 10-minute breaks, during which participants meditated with the Headspace app. The following week, the groups switched over; those who had done back-to-backs had breaks, and vice versa.
The research showed that our brains works differently when you take breaks between meetings. Those deprived of breaks saw their average beta wave activity rise as time passed, suggesting a build-up of stress. Whereas the average beta wave activity remained largely consistent over time for the ‘break-takers’.
Image credit: © Illustration by Brown Bird Design
The study conclusions were:
- Breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset,” reducing a cumulative build-up of stress across meetings.
- Back-to-back meetings can decrease our ability to focus and engage therefore having a break not only alleviates stress, but also benefits performance
- Jumping directly from one meeting to another can cause spikes of stress – taking breaks between conversations eases that stress
“In today’s world of remote and hybrid work, it’s not sufficient to only encourage self-care. We need to innovate and leverage technology to help employees operationalize much-needed breaks into their daily routines.”
Kathleen Hogan, Chief People Officer at Microsoft.
We continue to advocate regular short work breaks every hour and we coach leaders to set this as an example. Finishing meeting 5 mins or so before an hour is up is simple and effective. If you are leading a meeting, nominate someone else as timekeeper and empower them to give 5 minute and 1 minute warning before the close – setting an audible alarm is helpful.
Microsoft Office have a simple option to configure your calendar so meetings can finish early or start late, thereby establishing time for breaks. To change your Outlook calendar option meeting simply:
- Select File> Options > Calendar > Calendar options
- Check the Shorten appointments and meetings checkbox and select End earlyor Start late, depending on what you want.
- Use the drop-down to select the number of minutes for meetings less than one hour and one hour or longer, then click OK.
- You can choose a different duration for meetings under one hour and meetings over one hour. We recommend 5 minutes for a 1 hour work period and 10 minutes for 2 hours.
Our clients have universally found that implementing this small change leads to a positive shift in meeting culture and how we manage our time mindful of wellbeing.
© Microsoft Methodology: Study conducted from March 8-18, 2021, by Microsoft Human Factors Lab with 14 people participating in video meetings while wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to monitor electrical activity in their brains.