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Leveraging tech to manage mental exhaustion in the workplace

I’m so tired of that, I do have meeting fatigue,” said Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom at the 2021 Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit.

Yuan’s expression is unsurprising as the way we work has undergone a major transformation in the past year with a sudden shift to full-time remote working.

Between February 2020 and February 2021, Microsoft observed a dramatic increase in traffic across its video conferencing platform: Teams – 2.5X the amount of time spent in meetings globally, meetings lasted an average of 35 to 45 minutes, 45% increase in Teams chats per individual per week, 42% more chats per person after working hours, and a total of 62% of unscheduled or ad hoc calls and meetings. Despite an overload of meetings and chats, 50% of people responded to Teams chats within five minutes or less.

Based on these numbers, it seems that there is a higher productivity rate yet 54% of the global workforce reported feeling overworked while another 39% described themselves as ‘outright exhausted’. Moreover, “41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year“.

It is clear that the perceived high productivity rate is masking an exhausted global workforce.

Recognizing that flexible work is a trend and not a fad, Microsoft’s Chief People Officer, Kathleen Hogan, said that “we need to innovate and leverage technology to help employees operationalize much-needed breaks into their daily routines.”

As such, Microsoft stepped in to modify its technology to ensure that it “not only played a key role in helping people work remotely and stay productive” but also played a “key part of preserving and creating wellbeing,” said Janardhan, General Manager of MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics.

Microsoft’s Daily Briefing Email

“Commutes provide blocks of uninterrupted time for mentally transitioning to and from work, an important aspect of wellbeing and productivity. People will say, ‘I’m happy I don’t have to commute anymore. I’m saving time’. But without a routine for ramping up for work and then winding down, we’re emotionally exhausted at the end of the day,” said Shamsi Iqbal, Principal Researcher of Microsoft Research.

Therefore, the blurring of our professional and personal lives makes it harder for us to mentally compartmentalize especially as many of us continue to work from home. Therefore, Microsoft included a new feature to its Teams and Outlook platforms with the Daily Briefing Email.

Managed by Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) assistant; Cortana, the Daily Briefing Email delivers an automatic and personalized email to your Outlook to help you prepare for your day ahead.

Utilized by many including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Toledo, and McGill University, the Daily Briefing Email provides you with a pop-up view of your day. It allows and reminds you to set aside time for ‘a cup of coffee’, ‘catch up on emails’, and ‘focus on work’.

Headspace for Work

“People are still trying to adjust to a situation that is changing constantly, and the stress is taking a toll on everyone. Employer-provided mental health solutions have never been more in demand,” said Cindy Bladow, Chief Business Officer at Headspace.

Tailored for the current work landscape, Headspace is employed by an array of companies including Hello Fresh, Adobe, and Roche to support companies as they address the rising mental health issues faced by their employees.

Even as the state of the world steadily improves, “much of the data in 2020 and 2021 suggests not enough is being done to support employees coping with stress, especially during a time when people are increasingly exhausted by stress and anxieties at work and home,” noted the Headspace for Work 2021 Mental Health Trends Report: 5 Trends shaping the state of employee mental health.

As such, Headspace for Work was developed to accommodate the mental health culture of each company.

“Here at Ericsson, the safety, the health, and well-being of our employees is paramount. Now more than ever, it is important to look after our minds in the same way we look after our physical health … Headspace can help us support our colleagues to reduce stress, improve focus, sleep better, and experience more enjoyable, healthier days overall,” said Majbritt Arfert, Global Head of People, Ericsson.

It is not enough for companies to employ technology to relieve their employees’ mental exhaustion.

An ‘audio only’ break from video conferencing

Communication Professor and Founding Director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), Jeremy Bailenson observed that as physical distancing protocols have become the norm, more people have logged onto video chat platforms to communicate and remain connected to their family, friends, and colleagues.

“Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication, but just think about the medium – just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to,” Bailenson said.

The excessive use of video chats in our professional and personal lives leaves us mentally exhausted especially with the back-to-back meetings during working hours. Microsoft observed that our brains work differently when we take breaks in between video calls especially as these breaks allow us to mentally decompress from the earlier meeting and prepare for the later meeting. Hence, these breaks improve our ability to perform better.

“You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate,” said Bailenson.

Moreover, “for most setups … you’re seeing their face at a size which simulates a personal space that you normally experience when you’re with somebody intimately,” added Bailenson. As such, the close-up setup of video conferencing is especially exhausting for our already distressed mental state.

As such, Bailenson suggests that during long stretches of meetings, employers encourage their employees to have a brief nonverbal rest so that employees are able to create some physical distance of flexibility from the screen itself.

After all, “to avoid burnout, Dr. Albert Einstein sat in a tub and watched the bubbles. No one could talk to him. He was thinking and watching the bubbles,” wrote Dr. Mary Donohue, Founder of The Digital Wellness Center.

Michelle Low
Michelle Low is a Malaysia-based writer and educator, with experience in interactive learning and archaeogaming.