This shows a bored man at a laptop.
Only highly automated tasks, such as walking, can be properly carried out during a virtual meeting. Credit: Neuroscience News

Virtual Meeting Fatigue Driven by Boredom and Mental Underload

Summary: New findings challenge the notion that fatigue from virtual meetings stems from mental overload. Instead, the research indicates that sleepiness during such meetings is linked to mental underload and boredom, especially among those less engaged in their work.

The study, which involved monitoring heart rates during both virtual and face-to-face meetings, also revealed that multitasking during virtual meetings strains the brain.

Moreover, while engaged workers remained active during virtual sessions, those less passionate found them exhausting.

Key Facts:

  1. Sleepiness during virtual meetings is linked to mental underload and boredom, contrary to the popular belief of mental overload.
  2. Highly engaged and passionate workers remain active during virtual meetings, while those less engaged find them tiring.
  3. Multitasking during virtual meetings, especially tasks requiring cognitive attention, is mentally taxing.

Source: Aalto University

New research suggests sleepiness during virtual meetings is caused by mental underload and boredom. Earlier studies suggested that fatigue from virtual meetings stems from mental overload, but new research from Aalto University shows that sleepiness during virtual meetings might actually be a result of mental underload 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.

The researchers measured heart rate variability during virtual meetings and face-to-face meetings, examining different types of fatigue experiences among 44 knowledge workers across nearly 400 meetings.

The team at Aalto collaborated with researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, where stress and recovery are studied using heart rate monitors.

The paper was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

‘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,’ Nurmi says.

The study also included a questionnaire to identify people’s general attitude and work engagement.

‘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.’

It’s easier to maintain focus in face-to-face meetings than virtual ones, as the latter have limited cognitive cues and sensory input. ‘Especially when cameras are off, the participant is left under-stimulated and may start to compensate by multitasking,’ Nurmi explains.

Although an appropriate level of stimulation is generally beneficial for the brain, multitasking during virtual meetings is problematic. Only highly automated tasks, such as walking, can be properly carried out 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,’ Nurmi says. 

About this psychology and fatigue research news

Author: Minna Tiainen
Source: Aalto University
Contact: Minna Tiainen – Aalto University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Virtual Meeting Fatigue: Exploring the Impact of Virtual Meetings on Cognitive Performance and Active Versus Passive Fatigue” by Niina Nurmi et al. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology


Virtual Meeting Fatigue: Exploring the Impact of Virtual Meetings on Cognitive Performance and Active Versus Passive Fatigue

In this study, we challenge the commonly held belief that virtual meeting fatigue manifests as exhaustion (i.e., active fatigue) resulting from overloading demands and instead suggest that participation in virtual meetings may lead to increased drowsiness (i.e., passive fatigue) due to underload of stimulation.

Using subjective and cardiac measures (heart rate variability), we investigated the relationships between virtual versus face-to-face meetings and different types of fatigue (active and passive) among 44 knowledge workers during real-life meetings (N = 382).

Our multilevel path analysis revealed a link between virtual meetings and higher levels of passive fatigue, which then impacted cognitive performance.

Additionally, our results suggest that work engagement may act as an individual-level moderator, explaining why some knowledge workers are affected, while others are not.

Given the growing amount of time spent in virtual meetings, these findings emphasize the risks to mental energy and cognitive performance and highlight the protective role of high general work engagement.

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