This Is What Happens To Your Brain When You're In Back-To-Back Meetings

You can actually see stress levels spike in people's brainwaves when their work schedules are packed.
Too many meetings without breaks can cause our stress levels to spike, a Microsoft study found.
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou via Getty Images
Too many meetings without breaks can cause our stress levels to spike, a Microsoft study found.

If you have ever felt like a full day of back-to-back meetings was draining your life force, you’re not alone.

Many of us dread a packed work calendar. Wasting too much time in meetings is a distraction preventing 67% of professionals from making more of an impact, according to a 2019 survey of nearly 2,000 people by organizational consultancy Korn Ferry.

But it’s not just that a high number of meetings can give us feelings of anxiety. There’s actually research that shows how attending too many — and seldom taking breaks — can cause our brains to work differently.

Study Finds Stress Levels Spiked Amid Back-To-Back Meetings

In 2021, researchers at Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab asked 14 people to take part in video calls while wearing electroencephalogram equipment that monitored electrical activity in their brains. On one Monday, some participants were given four half-hour meetings without breaks, while others had four half-hour meetings with a 10-minute break between each for meditation; then, on the following Monday, the two groups switched.

Among those who got no breaks, beta wave activity increased in the brain with each successive meeting, indicating heightened stress levels. In fact, just the anticipation of the next call caused a spike in beta activity during the transition period between meetings, researchers found.

In a Microsoft study last year, beta wave activity increased in the brains of people who had successive meetings with no breaks, indicating a rise in stress. Beta activity remained stable in those who took 10-minute breaks.
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In a Microsoft study last year, beta wave activity increased in the brains of people who had successive meetings with no breaks, indicating a rise in stress. Beta activity remained stable in those who took 10-minute breaks.

Meanwhile, the researchers also measured the difference in right and left alpha wave activity over frontal regions of the brain — known as frontal alpha asymmetry — which can indicate levels of mental engagement.

Participants who took breaks showed positive frontal alpha asymmetry, suggesting higher engagement during the meetings, while those without breaks had negative asymmetry, indicating that they were more mentally withdrawn.

When study participants had breaks between meetings, their brains showed signs of higher engagement.
Valerio Pellegrini
When study participants had breaks between meetings, their brains showed signs of higher engagement.

“I’m not surprised that people who took breaks between meetings felt better. People who take breaks in general feel better,” said Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and the author of “Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways To Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters.”

“We all take breaks one way or another; it’s just [that] many times they’re unconscious. By choosing when and how to take a break, you notice the break happening and reap the rejuvenation,” Vanderkam said.

One big caveat to Microsoft’s findings, of course, is that the sample size of participants was small. But the study aligns with a large body of other research suggesting that meeting overload causes unproductive, unhappy employees who feel like their schedule is ruling their life.

In a recent survey of 76 companies, for example, management researchers found that employee productivity more than doubled when meetings were reduced by 40%.

“This is largely because employees felt more empowered and autonomous,” the researchers wrote in March for Harvard Business Review. “Rather than a schedule being the boss, they owned their to-do lists and held themselves accountable, which consequently increased their satisfaction by 52%.”

Making The Most Of Breaks In Meeting Marathons

If you’re looking for ways to make your own breaks more impactful, try to resist scrolling on social media or reading your email, experts said.

“Many people check email between meetings as a form of a break, and I get that,” Vanderkam said. “But [it is] even better to batch email at some point in the day, or only do it between every other meeting, and use those little bits of time for something else that will add joy and meaning to your life, like a 10-minute walk outside.”

Holistic health coach and mindfulness teacher Rosie Acosta recommended a relaxation technique in which you breathe in for three seconds and out for six, repeating as necessary.

“You only need to do three to five cycles before your body starts to respond and release tension,” she said. “Most of us sit at computers a lot. So if you do sit, perhaps use this time to stand and stretch. The biggest way to reset is to shut down the distractions.”

And if you’re a manager, try setting your teams up for success by avoiding marathon meeting days and building in more breaks.

“To make 10-minute breaks work, it’s helpful for organizations to set a culture that meetings start at, say, the hour and end 10-15 minutes early,” Vanderkam said. “That allows for a break or a ‘passing period’ like in a high school for people who need to travel.”

The big takeaway? It’s better to take a short breather than to power through a slew of meetings, as even a few minutes can make a big difference in our stress levels and ability to focus.

“When we are laser-focused on a task, we tend to create tension in our body, we stop breathing, and we stay in that tension throughout the day,” Acosta said. “If we are able to take short breaks to either do some breathing or even just relaxing of your shoulders, it gives your body the space it needs to feel relaxed.”

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