ESPOO, Finland — Glossy eyes and big yawns are a common sight during video chats and Zoom meetings nowadays. While prior research has suggested that video chats tire people out so quickly because they’re stressful, a new study finds many people may be going about their remote work all wrong. Moreover, video chats appear to promote mental underload as opposed to information overload.
Put another way, study authors from Aalto University explain that drowsiness during online meetings largely stems from a lack of mental stimulation and boredom.
“I expected to find that people get stressed in remote meetings. But the result was the opposite – especially those who were not engaged in their work quickly became drowsy during remote meetings,” says Assistant Professor Niina Nurmi, who led the study, in a university release.
To reach these findings, researchers gauged heart rate variability during virtual meetings and face-to-face meetings, examining numerous varieties of fatigue experiences among 44 knowledge workers across close to 400 meetings. Then, the team at AU worked with scientists at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, where heart rate monitors are routinely used to study stress and recovery.
“We combined physiological methods with ethnographic research. We shadowed each subject for two workdays, recording all events with time stamps, to find out the sources of human physiological responses,” Prof. Nurmi explains.
This project also included a questionnaire aimed at identifying people’s general attitudes and work engagement levels.
“The format of a meeting had little effect on people who were highly engaged and enthusiastic about their work. They were able to stay active even during virtual meetings. On the other hand, workers whose work engagement was low and who were not very enthusiastic about their work found virtual meetings very tiring,” Prof. Nurmi continues.
Study authors explain that it’s naturally much easier to maintain our focus during in-person face-to-face meetings in comparison to virtual get-togethers. Video chats simply feature limited cognitive cues and sensory input.
“Especially when cameras are off, the participant is left under-stimulated and may start to compensate by multitasking,” Prof. Nurmi notes.
While an appropriate level of stimulation is generally considered beneficial to the brain, multitasking during virtual meetings is seen as problematic. Only highly automated tasks, like walking, can be properly completed during a virtual meeting.
“Walking and other automated activities can boost your energy levels and help you to concentrate on the meeting. But if you’re trying to focus on two things that require cognitive attention simultaneously, you can’t hear if something important is happening in the meeting. Alternatively, you have to constantly switch between tasks. It’s really taxing for the brain,” Prof. Nurmi concludes.
The study is published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
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