Your Brain on Zoom: Research Shows You Need Breaks
Your screen freezes. There’s a weird echo. A dozen heads stare at you. First, you have a group meeting. Then you have a series of one-on-one meetings, and, once you’re done working for the day, there’s the video hangouts with friends and family.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we’re spending more and more time on video calls than ever before – and many are finding it exhausting.
But what, exactly, is tiring us out?
Researchers from across Microsoft formed an ongoing, cross-company initiative to understand the impact of remote work and identify opportunities to support new working practices.
Their initiative consisted of over 50 research projects and employed many different methodologies, ranging from small-scale, formative interviews to large-scale, modeling exercises and even EEG measurements of electrical impulses in the brain.
Here’s what they found out.
What Happens to the Brain During a Zoom Meeting
The research showed that back-to-back meetings might impact your brainwave activity, making you feel anxious, stressed, and tired.
Brainwaves are patterns of electrical activity occurring in the brain. They are related to many crucial aspects of brain function, like thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
For example, beta waves are associated with alertness, but when maintained for too long, they may lead to fear and anxiety. They are amplified when your brain is engaged in cognitive tasks that require a lot of attention and focus. Like when you’re on back-to-back Zoom calls.
Microsoft researchers added that when someone’s face is close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that will either lead to mating or conflict. What’s happening, in effect, when you’re having back-to-back meetings is that you’re in this prolonged hyper-aroused state.
“It’s a scientific expression of the stress and fatigue people feel during back-to-backs.” - Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group.
To examine the impact of back-to-back Zoom meetings on productivity and people’s well-being, Microsoft researchers asked 14 people to participate in video meetings while wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to monitor the electrical activity in their brains.
Half the participants attended a stretch of four half-hour meetings back-to-back (two continuous hours). Each call was devoted to different tasks (designing an office layout, for example, or creating a marketing plan).
For the others, the four half-hour meetings were interspersed with 10-minute breaks, during which participants meditated. The following week, the groups switched; those who had done back-to-backs had breaks and vice versa.
These were the results:
In the two straight hours of back-to-back meetings, the average activity of beta brainwaves (those associated with stress) increased over time.
When participants were given a chance to rest using meditation, beta activity dropped, allowing the participants to start the next meeting in a more relaxed state.
When participants had meditation breaks, brainwave patterns showed positive frontal alpha brainwave asymmetry levels, which correlates to higher engagement during the meeting.
Without breaks the levels were negative, suggesting the participants were less engaged in the meeting.
How to Cope With Zoom Fatigue and Increase Productivity
The main key takeaway of the Microsoft study is that short breaks are the remedy. They are important not just to make you feel less exhausted by the end of the day, but also to improve your ability to focus and engage.
Here’s how you can cope with Zoom fatigue and make the most out of your day:
View breaks away from your computer as an essential part of your workday.
Avoid trying to get more work done between meetings. Instead, use these breaks to unwind. Research showed that prioritizing rest may actually make you more productive.
Find break activities that calm your mind. For example, meditation, reading, doodling, or mindful walking. If possible, take a walk in nature. A review of 64 research papers identified that spending time in nature mindfully provides an essential antidote to modern life stresses and strains.
Make meetings more intentional. If you’re the one who’s scheduling a meeting, make sure you create and send an agenda ahead of time. Try to be thoughtful about who attends, start and stop the meeting on time, and transition to a recap for the final five minutes.
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, also suggested a few easy fixes that he’s been working on that you can try at home to improve your video conferencing experience:
Hide self-view. On Zoom, you can right-click the video, then press “Hide Myself.” Other video conferencing software has similar options.
Shrink the Zoom window to make other people a little bit smaller. Make it a third of the screen instead of maximized, Bailenson suggests. Or you can place your chair a little farther away from the webcam.
Spend time tinkering with your setup ahead of an important meeting. Check the lighting, figure out where to place an external camera, and make sure your chair is comfortable and at the right height. Maybe try placing your laptop on a stack of books to raise its height.
Turn off your camera and take a five-minute audio-only break during a long meeting to give yourself a chance to move around.
Set cultural norms with your co-workers that it’s okay to turn off the camera sometimes.
Not All Stress Is Bad
Have you ever noticed that you perform better when you are just a little bit nervous? For example, you will probably do better during a meeting presentation if you are somewhat anxious about your performance.
In psychology, this relationship between arousal levels and performance is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, a certain level of arousal is required in order to achieve optimal performance. However, too much of it or too little of it may decrease your performance completely.
So, an optimal level of stress can help you focus during the presentation and remember the information that you wanted to share, but too much anxiety may impair your ability to concentrate and make it more difficult to articulate.
Bottom line: embrace stress to perform better, but be aware that too much of it can be crippling.
How Remote Work Changed Our Everyday Life
Microsoft researchers also examined the impact that COVID-19 had on their remote employees' productivity and well-being.
Here are some challenges that were reported:
Speaking into the void: Interaction in remote meetings is challenging, especially during screen sharing or presentations. Microsoft employees stated that they were “speaking into the void” with no sense of audience. They also experienced uncertainty about the best way to deal with overlapping and interruptive talk as well as interpreting non-verbal cues.
Average work days got longer during COVID-19: People who previously didn’t work much on weekends saw their weekend working hours triple. The share of emails sent between 6 PM and midnight increased by 52%. Employees also felt inclined to work more hours to signal “work devotion.”
Work-life boundaries got blurred: Remote workers found it challenging to manage household chores, the immediate needs of dependents, and work meetings simultaneously in the same space.
To condition for productivity, the participants reported replacing old routines and notions of boundaries with new structures and rituals.
For example, they dressed up formally even while working from home to set the tone for productivity or included micro mental breaks to help with context switching when meetings were stacked.
Prior to the pandemic, video conferencing was used in cases where there was no way to meet in person. But now, these virtual behaviors have become so ingrained, so normalized, that Zoom meetings are expected to become a permanent part of our lives.
While they certainly have their benefits, boundaries and transitions are equally important. You should aim to create buffers that allow you to reset and recharge. By investing time in self-care, you’re not only increasing your productivity, but you’re also improving your overall well-being. Give your brain a break once in a while and watch your life improve dramatically.