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How companies can lessen employees' virtual meeting fatigue

As employees face uninterrupted screen and video meeting time, their risk of ill health and burnout increases. Here's a look at how employers can help.

The pandemic has brought forth countless new stressors -- working parents juggling new childcare and homeschooling duties, feeling danger while out in environments other than the home, and job insecurity as many companies downsized during 2020. With all of this, it is no surprise that chronic stress is affecting almost everyone.

One unexpected stressor that crept up on us during the pandemic is virtual meetings.

During the pandemic, the average workday increased by 48 minutes, according to a Harvard Business School study.

Daily virtual meetings are part of what has driven this workday increase. Being tethered to nonstop video conferencing can have a substantial negative impact on emotional wellness.

Research has shown that after one hour of screen time, every added hour we stack on has the potential to lower our psychological well-being. These negative psychological effects include depleted curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, difficulty making friends, less emotional stability and increased inability to finish tasks.

In addition to nonstop virtual conferencing, when we work from home there is a barrage of digital nudges from our digital devices that keep us from getting our work done. With so many social and work interactions happening online, it's no wonder that so much Zoom fatigue and more general burnout occurs.

According to an online poll conducted by Monster in mid-2020, 69% of workers were experiencing burnout symptoms while working away from the office.

How digital interactions deplete productivity

When workers primarily operated from dedicated workplaces, the ability to separate from work after hours was likely easier than when working in a lockdown situation or a forced work-home combination. Even as people learned to navigate work on different electronic platforms such as Slack before the pandemic, there were typically rituals such as leaving physical workspaces that signaled the workday was finished. For many, the line between work and home is blurred now, with more than 40% of the respondents to an MIT SMR survey confirming that they do not draw a hard line between work on the one hand and leisure and renewal on the other.

With so many interactions happening through digital mediums, many new productivity and emotional health challenges have surfaced. One challenge is that video conferencing takes place on digital tools that also facilitate so many other work-related tasks. At any given time, email, spreadsheets, and presentations and other technological-enabled tasks compete for workers' attention.

These digital tools influence work behavior in subtle ways. For instance, online calendars default to scheduling meeting times in 30-minute increments. Unable to engage in casual interludes in the workplace -- timing interactions as they come naturally and allowing for organic, nonverbal communication flows -- people are forced to schedule their days into restricted blocks of time. In the office, an informal chat on a specific topic might only take a few minutes. However, when someone schedules a "video chat," they often feel obligated to engage for the entire allotted time. And even if participants don't stay on the call for its planned duration, the remaining time becomes a purgatory where workers may feel they can't do anything truly productive, so they settle for casually checking email until the next video call.

How to reduce video call fatigue

Leaders and managers can encourage employees to regain agency over how they spend their time.

Here are some ways they can do this:

  • Challenge the assumption that all meetings need to be 30 minutes or an hour.
  • Encourage and celebrate the practice of personal time with the same enthusiasm prescribed to work-related responsibilities.
  • Create a company-wide agreement not to spend needless time on video calls.
  • Encourage employees blocking time for deep work.
  • Provide education for employees on how to turn off their notifications when they are in situations where these types of interruptions are distracting and stressful.
  • Dedicate specific meeting-free workdays to preserve time for getting things done.

Sitting and burnout

As early as 2011, the CDC warned about the dangers of occupational sitting.

More related to the last year, a new compelling study of physical activity and coronavirus hospitalizations shows that physical activity is associated with mitigated severity of COVID-19 symptoms. The study, which involved almost 50,000 Californians who developed the virus, found that those who had been the most active before falling ill were the least likely to be hospitalized or die.

According to estimates, the average worker in the U.S. was sitting for about nine hours a day even before the pandemic. This is about six hours longer than people should be sitting, according to many health experts. Sitting this long may shave a person's life expectancy by two years even if they abstain from other detrimental habits like eating poorly or smoking.

In the last year or so, many people have become even more sedentary with the constraints of the pandemic. They need to make sure they factor in walk breaks and include standing meetings when those are appropriate.

In line with encouraging employees to take agency over how they spend their time, leaders can also encourage them to space out their meetings to factor in other activities they find rejuvenating. Walking in nature is a great way to mitigate stress. Research on walking meetings shows the practice can increase creative thinking by up to 60%. Creative inspiration helps to increase productivity, motivation and critical thinking.

According to a study by Johnson & Johnson, after 90 consistent walking meetings, employees felt more energized, more focused on their jobs, and more engaged with colleagues and the companies they worked for. Managers can employ walking meetings now as a way to boost employee health and minimize job burnout.

Michael Rucker is the author of The Fun Habit, which offers a practical reframing of positive psychology, making the case we should cultivate the habit of fun to bring a greater sense of happiness and joy to our lives. The Fun Habit is set to release in late 2021.

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