Your brain needs breaks between Zoom meetings, Microsoft research shows

A recent study from Microsoft proves even a 10-minute wellness break can increase engagement and greatly reduce stress.

Shot of a young businesswoman lying with her head down on a desk in an office at night
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Anyone who’s sat through a ream of back-to-back virtual meetings will tell you it’s exhausting to the point of discomfort. Telling your boss you need a few breaks sandwiched in that packed schedule just got a little easier thanks to research from Microsoft.

Today the tech giant released the findings from a 14-person study on the benefits of taking short breaks between long periods of work. And — surprise, surprise — the study showed that breaks, even as short as 10 minutes at a time, can drastically improve your brain’s processing power and your ability to engage overall.

For many years, tech companies have taken advantage of our constantly increasing suspicion that we should always be online and at attention, ready for whatever the internet (and our managers) throw our way. We’re glad to see Microsoft putting its resources behind tech that puts our mental health first.

Build in some reset time — Microsoft’s study watched 14 volunteers as they took part in video chat meetings while wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment. They attended four half-hour meetings back-to-back on one day, with each dedicated to a different task; on another day they took the same meetings with 10-minute breaks for meditation (with the help of the Headspace app) in between.

Microsoft Human Factors Lab

When participants took all four meetings without a break, the average beta wave activity — which correlates with stress levels — kept increasing as the period went on. With just a 10-minute “reset” period between meetings, beta wave levels dropped significantly. By the end of the fourth meeting, average beta wave levels were just as consistent as they had been during the first meeting.

Without breaks, Microsoft’s researchers found that participants’ levels of frontal alpha asymmetry were negative, which typically means they were withdrawn or less engaged. There were also huge spikes in beta activity (stress levels) when participants had to jump between different tasks for meetings without some space to reset.

Science says you’re not alone — The takeaway of this study couldn’t be simpler: breaks between meetings and tasks reduce stress and allow for much better engagement. It’s concrete evidence that the fatigue we feel during long periods of being on is very real inside our bodies.

“What makes this study so powerful and relatable is that we’re effectively visualizing for people what they experience phenomenologically inside,” says Michael Bohan, who oversaw the research. “It’s not an abstraction — quite the opposite. It's a scientific expression of the stress and fatigue people feel during back-to-backs.”

And some feature spon — Microsoft’s research wouldn’t be complete with some essential changes to its own products. Microsoft Outlook’s calendar feature now includes default settings to shorten meetings and include breaks. These breaks can be set at an individual or organizational level.

Digital wellness is finally being taken seriously by the very companies who profit off our need to be Extremely Online. It’s definitely a trend we can get behind. And now we have definitive proof that our brains need some time to rest between our online work. Be sure to bookmark this article for easy access next time your boss schedules you for hours of nonstop Zoom calls.