Back-To-Back Meetings At Work Are Bad For Your Brain?

By Jennifer Hollohan | Published

Back-to-back meetings

Have you ever felt stressed on days packed with back-to-back meetings? The good news is that you are not alone. After a recent study, we now have better insight into how these marathon sessions impact our well-being.

Seemingly pointless meetings are a part of the professional landscape. Many employees find themselves complaining to co-workers about them. And the age-old question, “couldn’t this just be an email” inevitably pops up. 

But there are times when meetings serve an important role. The only problem is that they can leave workers feeling stuck in an endless cycle. Additionally, back-to-back meetings make many employees feel unproductive.

According to a survey by Korn Ferry in 2019, 67% of workers feel their productivity decreases when they face too many meetings. And when you want to succeed, that decreased productivity can get stressful. Ultimately, that leads to heightened anxiety at work and may spur burnout.

However, those are just feelings, right? Yes, they are. But there is also new data to show the validity of those feelings.

“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,” according to HuffPost. The study broke the participants into two groups. And it spanned two weeks.

Half of the group was subjected to back-to-back meetings without a break during the first week. There were four meetings, each thirty minutes long. The other half of the group had the same number of meetings, but they had a 10-minute break in between each.

That break time was for meditation and relaxation. The participants then received a week off. And on the following week, their roles were reversed.

“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.” So, both groups felt increased stress during the weeks of back-to-back meetings.

This news may not be surprising. However, researchers also found an interesting pattern regarding participants’ engagement and attention span. “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.”

Managers may find this second discovery even more interesting than the first. After all, when you gather your staff for an important meeting, you want them mentally present. And if back-to-back meetings are preventing that from happening, that is a critical piece of information.

Despite the interesting findings in this study, there is one note of caution. The sample size is small. And while that does not detract from the validity of the researcher’s findings, it does mean that more extensive studies will need to get conducted. 

News of the Microsoft study has already caught the eye of productivity experts. And they offered HuffPost a few suggestions to pass along to readers. For employees who get a short break between meetings – they recommend staying off electronics.

Resist the urge to catch up on email. The experts suggest snagging a quick walk instead. And for managers, they recommend building in space for breaks when back-to-back meetings are unavoidable.