Sleepiness during virtual meetings may be the result of mental underload and boredom

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New research suggests that sleep problems during virtual meetings are caused by stress and boredom. Previous studies have suggested that fatigue from virtual meetings comes from mental overload, but new research from Aalto University shows that falling asleep during virtual meetings may actually be a result of stress and boredom.

‘I hope people get stressed by remote meetings. But the results were the opposite – especially those who were not engaged in their work became drowsy faster during remote meetings,’ said assistant professor Nina Nurmi, who led the study.

Researchers measured heart rate variability during virtual meetings and face-to-face meetings, examining different fatigue experiences among 44 types of knowledge workers across nearly 400 meetings. Aalto’s team 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 anatomical methods with ethnographic research. We shadowed each subject for two working days, recording all events with time stamps, to find the source of the human physiological response,’ says Nurmi.

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

‘A meeting format had little effect on people highly engaged and passionate about their work. They were able to stay active even during virtual meetings. On the other hand, those with low work engagement and those who were not very enthusiastic about their work found virtual meetings too tiring.’

It is easier to maintain focus in face-to-face meetings than in virtual meetings, as the latter have limited cognitive cues and sensory input. ‘Especially when the camera is off, the participant is less stimulated and may begin to compensate by multitasking,’ explains Nurmi.

While 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 completed correctly during a virtual meeting.

Walking and other automatic activities can boost your energy levels and help you focus in meetings. But if you’re trying to focus on two things that require cognitive attention at the same time, you won’t hear if anything important is happening in the meeting. Alternatively, you have to constantly switch between tasks. It’s really taxing for the brain.’

Nina Nurmi, assistant professor


Journal Reference:

Nurmi, N., & Pakarinen, S. (2023) Virtual meeting fatigue: exploring the effects of virtual meetings on cognitive performance and active versus passive fatigue. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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