MRS – Causes And Cures
Are you feeling run down, drained, tired, and listless? If so, you may think you are getting a cold or virus. However, if you’ve just returned from a long, boring, ineffective meeting, it’s likely you have MRS. If it sounds serious, it is. MRS or Meeting Recovery Syndrome is running rampant through corporate America, and left unchecked, it can seriously hamper productivity, engagement, and morale. The good news is no doctor’s appointment or medicine is needed. Good old-fashioned efficiency and intentionality will likely be the cure.
What Is MRS?
American author and columnist, Dave Barry, humorously captured a prevailing feeling about meetings. He said, “If you had to identify in one word why the human race has not achieved, and will never achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” Why does the mere thought of a day full of meetings fill us with dread? It’s quite possible a bad case of Meeting Fatigue Syndrome is to blame. MRS isn’t a formally recognized medical term, but it’s used informally to describe the mental and physical exhaustion one feels after spending too much time participating in video or in-person meetings. MRS causes serious lag time when trying to get back in the zone after a particularly taxing meeting. One recent study found that the effects of a bad meeting can linger for hours, because attendees cannot quickly reset after the exhaustion caused by the meeting.
The Physiology Of MRS
What exactly happens to our bodies when MRS hits? Fatigue and stress are the main symptoms. Bad meetings zap attendees’ energy requiring time for energy levels to rebound. Output is at a low point during this lull as the body fights to regain the energy it needs to function and produce. When confronted with back-to-back meetings and insufficient recovery time, not only is the body operating at sub-optimal levels, eventually it enters a state of doing nothing but trying to recover. In this state, productivity dwindles, deadlines linger, and stress abounds. And, guess what’s likely next on the day’s agenda? Another unproductive meeting.
Meetings By Numbers
Just how big a problem is MRS? Are we all really participating in enough bad meetings to take a serious look at MRS? Yes. Here are some staggering meeting stats according to Zippia, a popular online job listing site:
- 83.13% of employees spend up to one third of their workweek in meetings.
- 11 million meetings are held every day in the U.S. leading to over 1 billion meetings per year.
- Only 30% of meetings are productive.
- Only 37% of workplace meetings actively use an agenda.
- An estimated $37 billion is lost due to unproductive meetings each year.
- 54% of employees believe they attend more meetings than they did pre-pandemic.
- 55% of remote workers think most meetings “could have been an email.”
- 82.9% of employees believe not all video meetings require video.
- 58% of introverts experience Zoom fatigue compared to 40% of extroverts.
Zippia further reports on the stark difference between the number of meetings attended on average, even within the same organization, depending on roles with the CEO and top-level executives attending more meetings than others in the organization. The number of meetings attended per week by job title are: CEOs, at least 37, VPS and other top-level executives, 12 – 17, and junior level employees, 8 – 10.
All those meetings would be quite an accomplishment if they were productive and useful, but studies show otherwise. A Harvard Business Review study which surveyed 182 senior managers in different industries found:
- 65% believe that meetings keep them from completing their own work.
- 71% consider meetings to be unproductive and inefficient.
- 64% believe that meetings sacrifice deep thinking.
Zoom fatigue, a type of MRS, has grown exponentially as a direct result of the proliferation of video meetings during the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2022, virtual meetings grew from 48% to 77%, and the global video conferencing market grew from $6.62 billion to $7.26 billion. While there are many virtual meeting platforms, Zoom was by far the most often used with its number of daily meeting participants increasing by 2900% within months of the Covid-19 outbreak.
By their very nature, video conferencing requires attendees to constantly stare at others’ faces in little boxes as well as their own. That requires an overwhelming amount of visual processing not usually required for in-person meetings where unspoken rules of human social interaction dictate how often and long we make eye contact with others before it starts to feel strange and awkward. Those “natural” social cues become very “unnatural” and distorted on video calls when attendees are faced with a screen of blankly staring colleagues. Attendees may also feel oddly invisible and exposed at the same time, a double whammy for the central nervous system. Studies show individuals are more critical of themselves when looking at their reflection in a mirror which is essentially what happens during a video call. Attendees watch themselves talk to others and give and receive feedback during video calls while simultaneously processing the faces of everyone else on the screen all at once. All this constant staring and processing in real time is extremely fatiguing.
Another cognitively taxing aspect of video calls is silence. Most video call participants are subjected to multiple millisecond delays in participants’ responses which interrupts the flow of dialogue leading to awkwardness and eventually dread around the mere prospect of another video call. To make matters worse, some participants overcompensate for the technical pauses by speaking too loudly and repeating themselves leading to even more overstimulation of participants’ central nervous systems causing more drain and fatigue.
Interestingly, Zoom fatigue appears to affect women more than men. A recent Stanford study found that overall, one in seven women, compared to one in 20 men, reported feeling “very” to “extremely” fatigued after Zoom calls. The main reason for this discrepancy is particularly revealing. Researchers found what contributed most to the feeling of exhaustion among women was an increase in what social psychologists describe as “self-focused attention” triggered by the self-view in video conferencing. Self-focused attention is a heightened awareness of how one is perceived by others in a conversation. Many women are not only focused on the message they are relaying in a video call but also how they appear as they relay the message.
How To Cure MRS
The solution isn’t to do away with meetings. When conducted properly, meeting have many useful purposes. Through collaboration and the sharing of ideas and opinions, meetings help people form a coherent and cohesive whole that is greater than its individual parts. Meetings can provide a valuable forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions, form consensus, build team relationships and further innovation. The answer is to eliminate and improve. Eliminate ineffective and unnecessary meetings and improve those that remain.
Understand Meeting Costs
All meeting organizers should understand there is an actual cost associated with conducting a meeting based on many factors. Meeting costs are a calculation of the money and resources required to prepare for, attend and get back into the zone after a meeting. While it can be difficult to quantify all costs associated with a meeting, simply calculating the cost based on who is invited and for how long using Harvard Business Review’s meeting cost calculator can be eye opening.
Be Stewards Of Others’ Time
When meeting with clients or stakeholders, everyone knows the importance of respecting those participants’ time. Why is this stewardship of others’ time often disregarded when meeting with one’s own team members and colleagues? Effective meeting organizers put a premium on respecting others’ time. The first question a meeting organizer should ask himself is, “Do I really need this meeting?” Could the meeting objectives be accomplished in an email or phone call?
If a meeting is required, must it last an hour, often the default meeting time? Parkinson’s Law comes to mind which is the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. This may mean one takes longer than necessary to complete a task or one procrastinates and completes the task right before the due date. If the meeting is scheduled for an hour or 20 minutes, it’ll likely take that long. Research shows that reducing a meeting’s length creates positive energy and pressure usually optimizing performance.
Meetings must start and end on time. Nothing is more annoying than a meeting delayed due to audio/visual problems, other technical difficulties, or late attendees. Meeting facilitators should make sure all meeting technology is running smoothly prior to the start of the meeting. Facilitators are responsible for keeping conversations clear, relevant and on topic without hesitating to shut down tangents and steer everyone back on course. Ending meetings late puts everyone on edge so a hard stop time is essential.
Be Selective About Attendees
How familiar is this scenario? 15 people sit around a crowded conference room table vying for the floor discussing the details of a project. A select few talk often and loudly enough to monopolize the meeting, several others have completely tuned out and are checking their iPhones and yet another small group wants to interject a thought but cannot get a word in edgewise. The only real accomplishment at the end of the hour is the decision to have another follow-up meeting with a smaller group to actually make decisions. It’s unnecessarily exhausting, unproductive, and costly. After deciding a meeting is required, a better meeting organizer gives real thought to whose attendance is critical to the meeting’s objectives through thoughtful exclusion.
The inclination is to invite those to meetings who are known effective collaborators. However, this can lead to collaborative overload for those individuals, and organizers must be very selective when deciding who among this group to invite. Care must be taken not to upset these highly valued employees whose feelings may be hurt if excluded. Some carefully worded language can head off resentment at being excluded from a meeting. Sample language along these lines can get across the message in a straightforward, empathetic way, “I know you are swamped with several projects right now, and I don’t want to interfere with your progress. I’d like to keep you off this upcoming project so you can focus on all the other work you already have. Ok?”
When only a small group of people are needed for a meeting, great meeting organizers communicate with those not invited the reasons why they aren’t needed. This manages others’ expectations ahead of time and lessens the “social threat” they may feel if not invited to a meeting with no explanation. Social threats occur when workplace behaviors threaten one’s status, autonomy, or sense of fairness. The body’s responses to social threats are biochemically very similar to its responses to physical threats and are detrimental to one’s sense of self and worth.
Create A Thoughtful Agenda
Agendas are a critical first step for a successful meeting, but little time is often spent on creating a helpful one, and often they are just recycled meeting to meeting. Instead of just being a list of talking points for the meeting, an agenda should seek to answer a set of critical questions. Why not make the agenda a list of questions that drive to the sought after outcomes instead of bullet points? Instead of the bullet point, “Budget Concerns,” what about, “How can we decrease spending by $50,000 next quarter?” Under no circumstances should the bullet point, “Comments” be included in a thoughtful agenda. A carefully crafted agenda also helps the organizer determine essential attendees capable of providing the information needed to answer the questions. Approaching the agenda in this way teaches all involved to become more strategic and think critically. Once all the questions are answered, the meeting ends.
Implement Zoom/Video Meeting Specific Changes
Because so many meetings are held remotely, meeting organizers can use these best practices to combat Zoom fatigue:
- Build in breaks. At regular intervals during long Zoom calls, require all attendees to walk away from their computers for a few minutes.
- Use “video off.” If video isn’t necessary for a meeting, require all attendees to turn it off.
- Incorporate no video days. Declare a certain day of the week a no video meeting day. Use conference calls or simply have no meetings at all that day.
- Limit on screen stimuli. Creative or funny Zoom backgrounds are great conversation starters but wreak havoc on the brains of attendees having to look at a screen full of little squares each with their own story to tell. Encourage attendees to use plain backgrounds or agree as a group to have everyone not talking turn off their video.
- Make virtual social events optional. Not everyone is thrilled to attend a virtual happy hour after a long day of virtual meetings. Take off the pressure to attend by making all virtual social events optional.
Get Smart HR
Sometimes it takes an independent third party to identify the root cause of issues in the workplace, because it’s hard for insiders to take a step back and view things objectively. Commonly, lack of employee engagement and low morale stupefy corporate leadership when trying to determine a cause. Smart HR consultants know the right questions to ask and areas to explore when getting to the root cause of such workplace issues. It could be that a workplace is suffering from a bad case of MRS, in which case some simple changes could rectify the problem and get everyone back on track again. If your workplace is experiencing high turnover, low morale and engagement, decreased productivity, employee relations issues and high absenteeism, maybe it’s time to call Smart HR for help. Call today.