New Meeting Fatigue Study Suggests Another Reason You Should Make Meetings Optional

Different people experience different kinds of fatigue, and it's worse online


  • A new study on meeting fatigue shows that it's not just a matter of cognitive overload.

  • This study advances the science on the impact of meeting online vs in the room and why people may experience the same meeting in very different ways.

  • Practically, this adds nuance and complexity to the meeting leader's job.

  • Our suggestion for reducing complexity, fighting fatigue, and increasing engagement? Make meetings optional.

Let’s dive in.

While we're on the topic of overwhelm, a new study of meeting fatigue by Niina Nurmi and Satu Pakarinen was just released.

Nurmi, N., & Pakarinen, S. (2023). Virtual meeting fatigue: Exploring the impact of virtual meetings on cognitive performance and active versus passive fatigue. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 28(6), 343–362.

The authors highlight important nuances about the causes of meeting fatigue.

  1. There are two kinds of meeting fatigue: Active Fatigue (aka Overload and Mental Exhaustion) and Passive Fatigue (aka Bored Off My Gourd)

  2. Passive Fatigue drags folks down more in virtual meetings than it does in face-to-face meetings.

  3. People experience different levels of fatigue depending on their level of engagement.

The authors suggest that:

"By identifying whether fatigue is a result of overload or underload, we can then describe the resulting state of fatigue (active or passive) more specifically to better understand and manage its effects on employees."

I encourage you to read this paper, the earlier work it cites (including several studies by our advisors Dr. Joseph Allen and Dr. Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock), and this related piece on meeting engagement in a medical setting.

Practical Implications

The authors suggest identifying what kind of fatigue you're dealing with and tailoring your approach accordingly.

Now here’s the trick. The management strategies for active vs passive fatigue are in opposition.

For example, if you're under-stimulated and experiencing passive fatigue, turning your camera on in a virtual meeting may help you stay awake. If you're overstimulated and experiencing active fatigue, on the other hand, turning it off can calm your anxiety.

Sweet! We just need to match our strategy to the state of fatigue! Except… every meeting involves multiple people, each of whom might be experiencing the meeting differently.

And they don’t all appreciate our attempts to “manage” them.

Overload, underload, lovely, meh… one meeting, many perspectives.

When I share tips for reducing overload with folks who experience it, they express gratitude and relief. "Oh, hiding self-view is magic! I hate looking at myself all the time!" They're motivated to reduce their stress levels.

The converse doesn't hold. Actively disengaged people rarely thank meeting leaders when told to turn their cameras on.

Speaking from personal experience, I often suffer from "passive fatigue" in meetings that other people seem to find fascinating. I know I could get more involved and fight that fatigue... but, why? Why would I try harder to care about something I do not care about?!

Happily, as an independent, I can politely excuse myself from those calls before I start sleep-drooling on my keyboard.

Meetings Should Be Energizing

In between too boring and too demanding, there's this happy balance point where a meeting is intrinsically engaging and even energizing.

Prior research on top-performing teams shows that they experience more positive energizers throughout the workday than other teams. This positive energy is often created during meetings when they connect on an interpersonal level, share appreciation, and collaborate toward shared goals.

People focused on Positive Organizational Science also find that:

The opposite is also true. If you de-energize others, people won’t go out of their way to work with you or to help you.  In the worst case, they might even sabotage you at work.

Boring the boots off of folks uninterested in your meeting is an excellent way to de-energize people and undermine team performance.

Now, let's assume that the people invited range from those who are highly engaged to others who are passively or even actively disengaged. How can you run a meeting that's energizing enough to capture the disengaged's attention, but not so energized that it overloads others?

The answer?

Drop everything else on your list and focus on becoming the most amazing magical fairy unicorn facilitator!

The Meeting Engagement Balancing Act


Make Meetings Optional

You don't have to be a magical meeting leader if the people in your meeting want to be there. 

The easiest way to achieve this is by inviting the people who don't want to be at your meeting to leave.

I've written about the benefits of adopting an "all meetings are optional" policy at an organizational level. It's a bold policy that has yet to become an operating standard, so today let's look at how you can apply it on a meeting-by-meeting basis.

You can increase the right-fit ratio of your meeting attendees using these simple strategies.

Before the Meeting
Step 1: Use the meeting purpose as the meeting name.

(e.g., turn Budget Meeting into Review and Approve Final Q1 Budget)

This makes it clear why someone might find the meeting interesting.

You can also use the invitation to say that only people with something to contribute need to come, and then promise to share the notes with those who do not attend. This clarifies that attendance isn't mandatory and relieves the pressure to attend "just in case" something comes up that they wouldn't hear otherwise.

Of course, people don't always read the invitation details.

No problem! You can help them out (literally) during the meeting too. Here's how.

During the Meeting
Step 2: State the purpose and plan for the meeting.

Why are you there, what's the expected result, and how should people expect to engage?

For virtual meetings, do this both out loud and in the chat.
🏆️ Bonus: prepping this note for the chat forces you to think through these basic details.

Here's the chat template I use.
(Not a fan of smileys? Feel free to copy and change my chat template to something that works for you.)

😊😊😊😊 About This Meeting 😊😊😊😊
45 m
✔️ Recording? Yes, with notes
🎯 Purpose:
To review and approve our final Q1 budget

🥡 Intended Takeaways:
- Update on changes since the last review
- Resolution of open comments
- Documented approval via consent vote

📋 The Plan
📍Check in or opt out
- Silent review and commenting
- What questions do we have?
- Do we consent to this budget?
- Review and confirm decisions

Step 3: Open the escape hatch.

Now that everyone understands what's about to happen, invite folks to leave. (credit to the Ritual Design Lab for this one.)

For example, I might say:

This meeting may not feel relevant to you, or it may not be the most important priority on your list. If you don't feel your input is required here, you are free to go with our blessings. No harm, no foul. We'll be sure to send you the notes later.

If you're planning to stay, please give me a sign and we'll dive in!

Here's my chat template for this one.

👋 The escape hatch is open.
You are free to: 🛵✈️🛣️🌳🍁

Staying? Let us know by saying or typing "I'm in!"

Then, do your meeting.

Why this Works

  1. You are more likely to run a quality meeting because you've thought out the purpose and plan.

  2. The group will feel more seen and respected because you've acknowledged that they may have other priorities.

  3. Actively disengaged people might leave. Sweet blessings for all!

  4. Anyone who stays has explicitly committed to engaging. This invokes the self-consistency principle, where people feel obligated to follow through on commitments they make publicly.

These simple steps frame the meeting as a purposeful, productive opportunity for collaboration. Starting here, you can quickly change meeting dynamics for your team and push back on meeting fatigue of all kinds.

Then, if your meetings are still boring, definitely go get some magical facilitation skills! Highly recommended for everyone in a leadership position.

Combatting Chronic Meeting Fatigue

We saw this study for the first time today and wanted to share it right away because it's highly relevant to our discussion on feeling overwhelmed at work.

This study advances our understanding of meeting fatigue, showing that it's not simply a question of too many meetings or even of meetings that are too long, too close together, or too big.

Chronic meeting fatigue can involve any of these factors.

Next, we'll return to our planned and promised recap of your favorite ways to keep overwhelm at bay and a conversation guide you can use to get to the root of your team's overwhelm - no matter what kind of overwhelm it might be.

In the interim, take a look at this study and let us know:
What jumps out for you? What other practical implications do you see?

Loving this chance to test the science in practice with you,
Elise & Dave

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