Meeting fatigue: The gateway to the land of burnout
Meeting fatigue is proven to be a key contributor to burnout. In this article, we explore the concept of meeting fatigue and give practical advice for leaders - to preserve themselves, their teams, and their organisations.
"The land of burnout is not a place I ever want to go back to." This quote from the Greek-American author, Arianna Huffington, summarises the experiences of many modern leaders somewhat succinctly. For those who have experienced burnout, it is not only known to be unpleasant, but as something that is to be avoided at all costs.
It is therefore troubling to learn that meeting fatigue, a growing phenomenon, is so ubiquitous among professionals. After all, meeting fatigue is found to be a key contributor to burnout. In fact, a 2021 study found that almost 50% of professionals experience burnout as a result of meeting fatigue.1 Given the highly social nature of meetings, they should be an opportunity for leaders to energise their people and galvanise them behind a common vision and shared goals. Meeting fatigue is a silent assassin to this endeavour, and should be stamped out as quickly as possible.
But what is meeting fatigue? What causes it? And how can it be addressed and avoided? In this article, we explore the concept of meeting fatigue and give practical advice for leaders - to preserve themselves, their teams, and their organisations.
What is meeting fatigue and what causes it?
More recently referred to as 'Zoom fatigue', meeting fatigue describes the feelings of exhaustion following meetings, whether virtual or in-person. While it isn't a formal medical diagnosis, the effects of meeting fatigue are wide-reaching and the experience is reported by people all around the world.
The effects include reduced productivity, however there are also significant impacts to individual wellbeing, which are perhaps more concerning. Meeting fatigue is proven to increase stress and anxiety, and therefore has the potential to lead to mental ill-health and physical symptoms such as increased blood pressure. Removing or reducing meeting fatigue in your organisation is therefore not only good for the productivity of your people, but also for their wellbeing, too.
In order to remove this “silent assassin” from your organisation you must first understand where it comes from. So what causes meeting fatigue?
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Unfortunately there isn't a single explanation - however there are a number of causes that we do know for sure. These include:
1. Too many meetings
The frequency of meetings has increased demonstrably as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Harvard Business Review found that people are attending up to 13% more meetings now than they were in 2019.2 Executives are known to spend as much as 23 hours a week, on average, in meetings.3 The face-to-face (or video) connection is not only emotionally taxing, it also erodes the time that individuals have to complete their work, which leads to feelings of stress and burnout. It becomes a vicious cycle.
A good way to overcome this issue is to carve out time in your calendar to avoid meetings, or block days for focused work. Some organisations have even put in place a 'meeting free day' each week, so that their people can focus on project work without the day being overrun with calls. It is also important to consider whether a meeting is really necessary in the first place. Could the same objectives be achieved in a different way? Furthermore, once you have decided that a meeting is necessary, be sure to only choose participants whose attendance is absolutely required.
2. Back-to-back meetings
Many of us have experienced the feeling of rushing from one meeting to the next. It's not only an unpleasant feeling, but it also gives little chance for meeting preparation, and the meeting begins with the feeling of being on the back foot. This increases the stress that we experience during a meeting, and enhances the overall emotional toll that the meeting takes.
A solution here is to institute a company policy so that back-to-back meetings are either strongly discouraged, or even forbidden. Even a ten minute break in-between meetings or video calls is enough to alleviate much of the stress, and therefore the fatigue, that a meeting creates. This change needs to be led from the top-down and communicated effectively so that people recognise the need for change.
3. The rise of video calls
The switch to remote working (and therefore, to video calls) that happened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was both unexpected and unprecedented. Overnight, as much as 90% of the global workforce transitioned from meeting on-site and in-person, to hosting all of their meetings online. These virtual interactions have been proven to take a greater toll on individuals' than physical meetings. According to the MIT Sloan Review, professionals “aren't used to the unnatural lack of nonverbal cues, prolonged eye contact, or overload of faces (including our own!) to process on the screen."4 And to add insult to injury, as we have already mentioned, the volume of meetings has also increased dramatically - in many cases to replace the physical interactions of the office.
Using collaboration tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams to create connection between distributed teams is a good way to alleviate the need for too many video check-ins and unnecessary calls.
4. Unnecessary meetings
Nothing is more frustrating than attending meetings that are a waste of time. Time that could be spent doing the actual work and reducing burdens in other areas of our professional lives. In fact, there is even a term to describe the time needed to recover after a frustrating meeting experience - it's known as 'meeting recovery syndrome'. On average, individuals need as much as 45 minutes to recover from a negative meeting - and in many cases, there isn't enough time before the *next meeting* to do so, so the side effects are compounded.5
A way to overcome this is to ensure that all the meetings you organise or lead have an objective, that they are well-prepared (with a clear meeting agenda), and that they are well-run. This will help to preserve the wellbeing of your participants and reduce the levels of frustration that they experience as a result of meetings.
5. Lights, camera, action!
As the world has become accustomed to remote and hybrid working, we have embraced technology to help support business continuity, and to help us remain connected to one another at a time when physical distancing is necessary. A key contributor to the exhaustion resulting from virtual meetings, however, is the need to always have cameras switched on. While many leaders use this functionality to check in with their teams, it actually leads to greater exhaustion. A 2021 study by the Journal of Applied Psychology in the US found that there is significant correlation between having cameras switched on during meetings, and the fatigue that is experienced as a result.6
Therefore, empowering your people with the option to have their camera off during meetings - at least some of the time - can be an effective means of reducing meeting fatigue in your organisation. Once again, this is a change that will need to be led top-down so that individuals feel comfortable embracing the change.
Overcoming the challenges of meeting fatigue
As a leader, it is incumbent upon you to create a meeting environment that gets the best out of your people. Therefore, reducing (or even eliminating) the root causes of meeting fatigue from your collaboration should be considered a core component of leadership. By first understanding and identifying these root causes in your organisation, you can then work systematically to ensure that your meetings are energising rather than exhausting. The land of burnout is no place for you, nor your people, after all.
1 ‘The Webcam Survey: Exhausted or Engaged?’ Virtira Consulting, 2021.
2 ‘How to Combat Virtual Meeting Fatigue’, K. Kavanagh, N. Voss, L. Kreamer, and S. G. Rogelberg, 2021.
3 ‘You're Right! You Are Working Longer and Attending More Meetings’, D. Kost, Harvard Business School, 2020.
4 ‘Stop the Meeting Madness’, L. A. Perlow, C. N. Hadley, and E. Eun, HBR, 2017.
5 ‘Blame your worthless workdays on ‘meeting recovery syndrome’’, P. Rubenstein, BBC, 2019.
6 ‘Videoconference Fatigue? Exploring Changes in Fatigue After Videoconference Meetings During COVID-19’, A. A. Bennett. E. D. Campion, K. R. Keeler, and S. K. Keener, American Psychological Association, 2021.