Pink brains are laid out in rows with one blue brain among them against a pink background.
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How Zoom fatigue can affect your brainwave activity

22 Apr 2021

New research from Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab suggests that back-to-back video meetings can lead to a build-up of mounting stress.

If you’ve experienced Zoom fatigue in the past 12 months or so, you wouldn’t be the only one. Being on a video call requires you to focus more and work harder on processing non-verbal cues, which can be exhausting.

In its 2021 Work Trend Index, Microsoft said 54pc of respondents to its global survey reported feeling overworked and 39pc felt exhausted. Now, the company’s Human Factors Lab, which examines the relationships between people and technology, has conducted a study on the impact of video meetings on electrical activity in the brain.

The lab asked 14 people to wear electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment – a cap to monitor the electrical activity in their brains – while taking part in video meetings. The participants were US information workers who typically work remotely. Half of them attended a stretch of four half-hour meetings back to back for the study.

For the second group, their four half-hour meetings were interspersed with 10-minute breaks. The attendees in this group were asked to meditate using the Headspace app during their short breaks. A week later, the groups switched schedules.

Microsoft came to three conclusions from the results. Firstly, it found that taking breaks between meetings can allow your brain to reset and reduce the build-up of stress across meetings. It also found that back-to-back meetings can lower your ability to focus and engage. Finally, it says that jumping straight from one meeting to the next can be a source of high stress.

Beta waves in the brain are linked to stress. When participants had to sit through two hours of back-to-back meetings, Microsoft found that the average activity of the beta waves in their brains increased over time.

However, when given 10-minute breaks to reset between meetings, beta wave activity dropped for participants.

“This reset meant participants started their next meeting in a more relaxed state,” Microsoft said. “It also meant the average level of beta waves held steady through four meetings, with no build-up of stress even as four video calls continued.”

Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors engineering group, said: “Our research shows breaks are important, not just to make us less exhausted by the end of the day, but to actually improve our ability to focus and engage while in those meetings.”

During the transition periods for participants who didn’t get breaks, Microsoft found that stress levels spiked. Bohan added: “This might be because 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.”

An infographic shows how breaks between meetings affect the brain by preventing a build-up of beta wave activity, which is associated with stress, thereby helping to prevent Zoom fatigue.

Click to enlarge. Infographic: Microsoft

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Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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