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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