Virtual meeting fatigue or - just meeting fatigue - is the phenomenon in which individuals experience exhaustion, burnout, and decreased productivity as a result of excessive participation in virtual or in-person meetings.
Since the pandemic, meeting fatigue has become a serious concern for organizations and professionals, as the number of virtual meetings has increased significantly with the shift to remote work. Doodle’s annual State of Meetings report of 2021 even mentions a 12x increase in virtual meetings from January to December 2020.
Fast forward 2 years later, and it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. After all, a growing number of organizations work with fully remote or hybrid work models now and have no plans to completely return to the office. In short: we have more virtual meetings (even though we know excessive meetings are bad for us), and we experience more burnout because of this.
But why exactly is this the case? Why do we feel exhausted after sitting on our butts, looking at a screen for 8 hours? Meet our two main culprits: cognitive overload and decision fatigue.
Cognitive overload is a state of mental exhaustion caused by being presented with too much information or too many tasks at one time. It leads to confusion, decreased concentration, and decreased productivity. The following graph from a study done by the university of sydney, back in 2006 shows that although in region E2 mental effort is at its maximum level, performance is at its lowest due to extended cognitive effort that led to cognitive overload. This means that no matter how hard you work after being cognitively overloaded, your productivity will not improve as long as you stay in a cognitive overload state..
Is a psychological phenomenon in which the stress caused by repeated decision-making leads to mental fatigue and increasingly poor decisions. It occurs when a person's resources for making decisions – such as time and energy to invest in collecting the right information – run low. This increases the likelihood of rash decisions or decisions made without proper consideration.
As you see in the following graph, there is a point where the quality of your decisions decreases because of the number of decisions that you have already made. This is what we call decision fatigue, and it is here where your decision-making performance declines rapidly.
Extra Contributing Factors for Virtual Meeting Fatigue
And these are just the main two factors that make you feel tired after a full day of regular meetings. If we consider virtual meetings specifically, there are even more factors at play:
Screen fatigue: Screen fatigue is a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by spending too much time looking at the blue light of digital screens. It is often characterized by headaches, sore eyes, and difficulty concentrating.
Continuous Technical difficulties:49% of employees say at least 2 of the virtual meetings they attend each week are disrupted due to technical issues, adding to the cognitive overload.
Lack of body language: Between 60% and 70% of human communicationhappensvia body language and is registered mostly unconsciously. In virtual meetings, More cognitive ‘processing power’ is needed to pick up on the nuances of communication that would normally be conveyed through body language.
Distractions everywhere: It is more difficult to remain concentrated during online meetings, due to the increased distractions from the home or workplace environment. In a research done by Buffer back in 2020, 12% of remote workers even said distractions at home were their biggest struggle on a day-to-day basis.
Social isolation: We are all social animals by nature. And although many of us have introverted personality traits, we all need to be part of a ‘clan’. Being alone in your home office, socializing in ‘virtual water coolers’ just isn’t the best way to feel part of something. And people who feel disconnected from their work environment start to feel unmotivated about the work in general, which again leads to a decrease in productivity and increased levels of fatigue.
How to overcome meeting fatigue?
Now that we know where meeting fatigue comes from, let's dive into our 11 tips to help you overcome meeting fatigue and improve productivity and well-being during virtual meetings:
Say ‘no’ to unnecessary meetings: As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. And the same is true for meeting fatigue. The best solution in the end, is simply having fewer meetings. Give your brain some recovery time, before diving into a new meeting. We know it sounds easier than it is, but if you think about it, how many meetings do you have every week where you don’t actively contribute, but just sit in because you need the information? These are the meetings you can skip - all you need to do is make sure that you have a way to quickly catch up on those meetings that you’ve missed. Luckily, the technology is there nowadays to enable that.
Meet with purpose: You can't say ‘no’ to every meeting, we understand. So make sure that when you meet, you meet with purpose. Be clear and upfront on the agenda, limit the number of people you invite (make sure they are necessary), and stay on track throughout the meeting. Oh, and those 30-minute blocks your calendar wants you to schedule at a minimum? Toss those out as well. You’re in control of your calendar, right? Not the other way around. If you need 20 minutes to meet - schedule 20 minutes.
Use technology to your advantage: since the exodus to work from home at the start of the pandemic, crafty entrepreneurs have rushed to the cause and created software that improves the virtual meeting experience. From meeting intelligence tools and collaboration software, to note-taking tools and calendar enrichment apps and plugins - and anything in between. Many of these are free to try, or work with a pay-as-you scale model, so be sure to check them out. Not sure where to start looking? Check out our article on the ideal remote work tech stack to learn more.
Take breaks: But seriously: take breaks. It’s-ok. Or at least, it should be - remember screen fatigue? Make sure to take time away from that screen. At the office, you’d get your time away from the screen organically by walking up to the coffee machine or chatting with your colleague for a while. At home, this happens less organically - so bake it into your routine. Going for a short walk, bike ride, or my personal favorite - rope jumping for 5 minutes - will help you stay energized and as a result - more productive throughout the day. You can see in the following graph that employees who take breaks during the meetings have a more positive engagement level, as shown by their frontal alpha asymmetry, while those who did not take breaks showed negative asymmetry, indicating that they were mentally less engaged.
Change the environment: We are all explorers by nature. And as such, our brains need to be stimulated constantly to stay fresh and healthy. Switching up your work environment improves your so-called neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to ‘rewire itself’ by repairing old neural connections or creating new ones. So move to a different room or go outside for a virtual meeting to provide your brain with a change of scenery and reduce mental fatigue.
Exercise in the morning: There is a reason why many high-performing business people exercise in the morning. A 20-minute cardiovascular exercise in the morning leads to the release of serotonin and dopamine which will boost your mental well-being for the rest of the day. Combine this with putting your desk in a standing position, stretching, and diaphragmatic breathing throughout the workday to stay fresh and mentally acute.
Connect with colleagues: If there’s one type of meeting that you should not skip when you work remotely, it’s the one where you connect with your colleagues outside of project/work-related things. To combat social isolation and improve engagement and social cohesion, make sure you check in with different people throughout your organization to catch up on life, or just the latest gossip - it serves a purpose, you know:).
Focus on body posture: Do you find yourself experiencing backaches or neck pain along with feeling fatigued since you have been working from home?! If so, it is time to reassess your posture. Don’t forget to keep your back and neck straight, with your feet flat on the ground and your knees at a 90-degree angle instead of slouching or leaning forward. Not only will this improve your physical well-being, but also makes you look confident in virtual meetings! And don’t underestimate the positive impacts of using an ergonomic standing desk and chair on minimizing physical complaints.
Minimize distractions: Did you know it takes the average brain 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to focus, after a distraction? And refocusing costs significant mental bandwidth. So, and it’s been said many times before, just turn off notifications on your devices. Feed the cat and close the door. Put on noise-canceling headphones and zone in. That way, you give your full attention to the task before you - your brain will love you for it.
Use meditation/visualization techniques: Adding mindfulness techniques like meditation or visualization to your routine. helps you stay present and focused, even in the midst of virtual meeting chaos. A study by the University of Groningen found that practicing mindfulness actually even makes you more creative! By meditating and being more present, you develop better problem-solving skills and come up with new ideas. So, grab a cushion, bring your attention to your breath and body, picture yourself on a tropical island, and let those innovative ideas flow.
Take care of yourself: And of course, take good care of yourself. Because even though it sounds logical, it is something that’s often tossed aside when we have to make a decision. We skip breakfast because we have early meetings. We skip our workouts because we have late-night meetings. And we go to bed late, because we just want to finish that one last thing. And we get it, it’s hard to say no. But it’ll wear you out in the long run. So, build a routine around healthy eating, enough sleep, and exercising and combine it with yoga, meditation, or stretching. Not only will you feel less stressed physically and mentally but your brain will also be firing on all cylinders during the day.
There you go, 11 tips you can try out to tackle meeting fatigue and improve your remote days. Be aware though that everyone is different, so some things might work better for you than others. As for me, building a ‘work week routine’ and finding the right balance between work, my diet, sleep, and exercise made all the difference. Good luck with finding yours!