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Downtime between meetings or the case for breaks is crucial for our brain health, research says.

As the pandemic upended routines and heightened the digital intensity of workdays, hundreds of researchers across Microsoft came together to study how work is changing, amassing one of the world’s largest bodies of research on the subject.

Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab sought to find a solution for meeting fatigue—a pressing concern in our new era of remote and hybrid work. Researchers asked 14 people to take part in video meetings while wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment—a cap to monitor the electrical activity in their brains.

The 14 volunteers each participated in two different sessions of meetings. On one day they attended stretches of four half-hour meetings back-to-back, with each call devoted to different tasks. On another day, the four half-hour meetings were interspersed with 10-minute breaks. Participants meditated with the Headspace app during the breaks.

The research showed three main takeaways.

🌀 Breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset,” reducing a cumulative buildup of stress across meetings.

In two straight hours of back-to-back meetings, the average activity of beta waves—those associated with stress—increased over time. In other words, the stress kept accumulating. But when participants were given a chance to rest using meditation, beta activity dropped, allowing for a “reset.” This reset meant participants started their next meeting in a more relaxed state. It also meant the average level of beta waves held steady through four meetings, with no buildup of stress even as four video calls continued.

🌀 Back-to-back meetings can decrease your ability to focus and engage.

When participants had meditation breaks, brainwave patterns showed positive levels of frontal alpha asymmetry, which correlates to higher engagement during the meeting. Without breaks, the levels were negative, suggesting the participants were withdrawn, or less engaged in the meeting. This shows that when the brain is experiencing stress, it’s harder to stay focused and engaged.

In sum, breaks are not only good for wellbeing, they also improve our ability to do our best work.

🌀 Transitioning between meetings can be a source of high stress.

For the participants deprived of breaks, researchers also noticed that the transition period between calls caused beta activity, or stress levels, to spike.

For those participants, beta wave activity jumped again when new check ins started. When people took meditation breaks, by contrast, the increase in beta activity dropped between meetings, and the increase at the start of the next meeting was much gentler and smoother.

Jumping directly from one meeting to another can cause spikes of stress

What makes this study so powerful and relatable is that the researchers were effectively visualizing for people what they experience phenomenologically inside.

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