Reduce Burnout with Fewer Emails and Less Meetings
Workspan Daily
May 25, 2023
Reduce Burnout with Fewer Emails and Less Meetings
Key Takeaways
  • Overextended by emails and meetings. New research from Microsoft finds workers spent an average of 8.8 hours a week reading and writing emails and 7.5 hours logging meetings. Nearly two out of three workers said in a separate survey they struggled to find time and energy to do their actual job.  
  • How to identify the problem. In addition to looking at traditional metrics such as turnover and engagement rates, organizations can identify concerning trends pointing to burnout by surveying employees about their usual workday or workweek.  
  • Implementing potential solutions. Some organizations have begun to time-box meetings (“no meeting Fridays”) while others have limited the use of night and weekend emails in order to reverse the trend of work intensification. 
  • Measure results. After implementing changes to meeting structure or occurrences as well as other work culture-related changes, organizations should survey employees on an ongoing basis to measure results.  

New research shows workers now spend two full days a week on email and in meetings. 

The data came from Microsoft and examined the activity of millions of workers who use the company’s business applications.  

The researchers found that the people who use Microsoft’s business software for much of their online work activity spent an average of 8.8 hours a week on emails and 7.5 hours in meetings. 

“People feel quite overwhelmed, a sense of feeling like they have two jobs, the job they were hired to do, but then they have this other job of communicating, coordinating and collaborating,” said Jared Spataro, who leads Microsoft’s modern-work team and who spearheaded the research. 

A separate Microsoft survey of 31,000 people worldwide also found that nearly two out of three said they struggled to find time and energy to do their actual job.  

So in this era of “work from anywhere” and 24/7 connectivity, how can organizations help workers reduce burnout without sacrificing productivity? 

Battling Burnout 

According to Mercer’s "2022 Inside Employees’ Minds" report, burnout is higher now than during the pandemic. This is partly due to years of unchecked work intensification, such as too many emails and meetings, said Melissa Swift, U.S. & Canada transformation solutions leader, career at Mercer.  

“Organizations that do not solve the burnout issue will face both increased attrition and decreased productivity for employees who stay,” she said. 

So how do you identify if this is a problem at your organization?  

In addition to looking at traditional metrics such as turnover and engagement rates, Swift said companies can identify problems via employee-survey questions like: What percentage of “free” time does your employee group have in a day? How about in a week?  

“You can also ask employees how many hours of meetings are on their calendar for weeks far in the future,” she said. “Standing meetings fill up schedules before you even begin scheduling things related to current work.”  

Once an over-scheduling problem is identified, organizations can begin to address it by following the example of companies that have always had remote and hybrid work. 

Such companies “often engage in a higher proportion of asynchronous work — work that doesn’t happen at the same time for all participants — where meetings are avoided by people doing work in shared documents, rather than meeting and then going off to implement next steps,” she said. 

Asynchronous work can pay dividends by reducing emails as well, Swift said, as conversations move into the actual work product environment (like Teams) rather than email, which is definitionally a separate channel. 

“One great strategy that we’ve seen organizations implement recently is killing off all standing meetings and seeing which ones are needed back,” Swift said. “It’s usually a very small fraction.” 

Ultimately, Swift said, the responsibility for implementing best practices sits with the organization in terms of setting clear guardrails. 

“But unless ownership for implementation sits at the team level — where the work gets done, after all — these programs are destined to fail.” 

A Tactical Approach  

The United Kingdom-based Fishawack Health, which works globally with the biopharmaceutical, medical technology and wellness industries, is giving the burnout issue more than just lip service. 

“It’s not just about fresh fruit and yoga Mondays,” said Nick Holmes, Fishawack’s head of career experience. “It’s about the mechanics of how work gets done and where it gets done because when we go back-to-back with meetings with no meaningful rest or break, for example, we increase stress and that could have a serious implication for long-term health.” 

Hence the company’s new three-phase “Project Rebalance,” designed to give people time back and reduce stress across the organization, he said. 

The first phase addresses the very structure of time: Every scheduled meeting is now 20 minutes (instead of 30 minutes) or 50 minutes (instead of 60 minutes) in order to build in a physical break between events.  

The second phase involves carving out protected time each week for workers to step away from their tasks for such activities as participating in a diversity and inclusion engagement group or taking a course. 

“It’s guilt-free time for them to use to work on themselves,” he said. 

The final phase will involve experiments to figure out if there is a healthier way to work. Possibilities could include implementing “a quirky sabbatical program” or even making a sleep coach available for employee consultations. 

Fishawack’s success in the battle against burnout is measured via the company’s internal well-being index score, which factors in how often workers respond positively to the following statement: “I rarely feel burnt out or stressed at work.” 

“There’s a huge appetite for this type of initiative to break up the way we’re working because it’s just not sustainable,” Holmes said. “I wish we had done it sooner.” 

Editor’s Note: Additional Content 

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