Meeting overload is nothing new. But whew! It is persistent. 

Thinking about this topic took me back to a LinkedIn post I wrote in early 2022:

“I'm trying to create more balance in my day going into 2022. I’m planning my week and already feeling the meeting overload kicking in. As an introvert, I love deep thinking time and having a few meetings a day. These days it feels like I'm in meetings all day, every day, and while I love people ... constant meetings are super draining for me.”

Fast forward to now, and it’s still a challenge. Over the past two years, I’ve had moments of scheduling bliss: enough time to focus, get all my work done, support my team and even make lunch. In those moments, I thought, “Eureka! I’ve figured it out. Finally, I’ve evolved.” 

But then weeks creep up when I have back-to-back days of back-to-back meetings, and I end the days frazzled. Overwhelmed. On those days, I feel like I’ve learned absolutely nothing. However, I quickly snap out of it and remind myself that all hope is not lost — I just need to relearn what I already know. As with most things in life, it all comes down to the habits I establish (the good and the bad), what I prioritize and how I manage what’s coming at me. 

This article aims to offer two things for your own meeting and wellbeing journey.

  1. Why taming meeting overload is such an imperative — not just for your own wellbeing or for your people, but also for your company’s bottom line. 
  2. Six simple ideas for changing your habits and the cultural norms at your company so you can try to cultivate a healthier meeting culture for everyone.

The Hidden Costs of Meeting Overload

The amount of time people spend in meetings has skyrocketed 250% since before the pandemic, contributing to a workforce that is increasingly stressed and spread too thin. As Indeed’s Work Wellbeing Initiative lead, a knowledge worker and people manager, I can’t overlook the toll it’s taking on work wellbeing, a metric that describes happiness, satisfaction and purpose as well as levels of stress. 

Research from Microsoft shows that a constant stream of meetings with no breaks can decrease focus and engagement, causing stress levels to spike. Other studies find that attending too many meetings makes people less polite and more likely to be mentally and physically exhausted. Many put in extra time outside business hours to just complete tasks, leaving little opportunity for deep, meaningful work. What’s more, the performative effort of nonstop video meetings can be extremely taxing, especially for those who are introverted. 

Beyond the human cost, meeting overload has tangible financial costs. In addition to millions of dollars in wasted time spent in unnecessary, unproductive meetings, the negative impact on work wellbeing can translate to lower profits, return on assets and company valuations. Clearly, the price of overlooking meeting overload is high.

The amount of time people spend in meetings has skyrocketed 250% since before the pandemic

Six Ways to Fight Meeting Overload

Some companies have gone to extreme measures to combat meeting bloat. For example, Shopify famously implemented a meeting purge with a calendar bot that eliminated more than 300,000 hours of meetings across the entire company. However, in the new hybrid work reality, teams need some time to collaborate, connect and foster camaraderie and belonging, which also drive work wellbeing. And most of us don’t have the luxury of clearing our calendars and calling it a day. 

Instead, try these research-based strategies to rein in the meeting madness and improve work wellbeing: 

1. Reduce meeting occurrences 

The good news is that even reasonable efforts to reduce meetings improve outcomes significantly. In a 2022 survey of 76 companies, researchers found that reducing the number of meetings by 40% boosted productivity 71%, while also increasing employee satisfaction 52% and decreasing their stress by 57%.

To reduce unnecessary meetings, start by conducting an audit using a subtraction mindset: What recurrent meetings can you combine, reduce in frequency or get rid of altogether? Before creating a new meeting, does the topic truly require one, or can it be handled via Slack, email or another way? Where could working asynchronously reduce the need to meet? Consider implementing company- or department-wide “collaboration hours,” or designated windows of time for meetings to prevent them from eating up entire workdays. In addition, managers and other leaders can hold “office hours” to cut down on individual meetings while still making themselves available to offer advice and expertise.

In a 2022 survey of 76 companies, researchers found that reducing the number of meetings by 40% boosted productivity 71%

2. Implement meeting-free days

In the study cited above, the introduction of one meeting-free day per week improved “autonomy, communication, engagement and satisfaction … resulting in decreased micromanagement and stress, which caused productivity to rise.” 

If a weekly cadence is untenable, try monthly. The Indeed marketing organization has deemed the first Friday of each month as a meeting-free “Focus Friday,” enabling marketers to limit distractions and task-switching to focus on deep work.

3. Build micro-breaks into the workday

Reducing meetings doesn’t have to be done with an all-or-nothing approach; even ending them 10 minutes early can make a huge difference. In fact, research shows that taking “micro-breaks” of up to 10 minutes can boost energy and work wellbeing. Other studies find that a brief respite can reduce or prevent stress, help to maintain performance throughout the day and reduce the need for a long recovery at the end of the day. 

Instead of defaulting to the typical 30- or 60-minute time block, meeting owners should decide how much time they actually need to accomplish their agenda — and if it’s only five or 10 minutes, schedule accordingly. If 30 or 60 minutes are necessary, ending five or 10 minutes early gives people time to be “human” before their next meeting, allowing their systems to return to baseline and combating the drain of meeting overload.

4. Walk and talk

Who says meetings have to mean sitting at a desk staring at one another or your screens? If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that there are different ways of accomplishing work that might be even more productive and support work wellbeing better than we had ever considered before. 

To reduce meeting drudgery, make walking meetings a part of your cultural norms. If you’ve never held a “walk-and-talk” before, try it out during your next one on one: put your phone in a pocket, pop in your earbuds and take your conversation on the road. Not only will you get your steps in, which is good for your overall health, but the break from screens and change of pace may just free your mind up for greater creativity and collaboration. And if company leaders make walking meetings a habit, it may influence others to embrace them as well.

5. Encourage people to protect their time

If too many meetings are a known productivity and energy killer, why are we still compelled to attend all of them? There are many explanations, from meeting FOMO, or the fear of being overlooked or judged for missing a meeting, to organizational norms and, let’s be honest, your boss requiring it. To combat this pressure, managers should engage in job crafting, or the practice of empowering people to design their workdays, and make it acceptable for workers to say no to meeting requests without fear of repercussions.

At the beginning of each workweek, everyone who is asked to attend a meeting should first consider:

  • How can I contribute to the conversation? 
  • What might I get out of this meeting to help my work?
  • How can I help others in ways that no one else can? 

Asking these questions can help you decide which meetings to accept and which to politely decline, or even to send a substitute (for example, a teammate who is energized by personal interactions). 

In addition, encourage employees to reserve blocks of focus time on their calenders to engage in meaningful or focused work. This should be protected time, not “free time” that’s scheduled over for urgent meetings. To help make this the new norm, managers and other organizational leaders should model healthy boundaries by reserving focus time for themselves, visibly declining unnecessary meetings — and encouraging others to do the same. (Pro tip: Improve the likelihood of people respecting your focus time by setting your calendar to “public” so people can see what your blocks mean.)

6. Clearly define your company’s meeting principles

Once you’ve committed to changing your approach to meetings, make it official. Create a meeting principles document that outlines your organization’s best practices and expectations, including strategies for helping individuals support a healthier meeting culture. Detail your policies on meeting-free days, micro-breaks, focus time and the freedom to opt out, and include criteria for hosting more effective meetings, such as:

  • Attendance: Reserve mandatory invites for only truly essential participants while inviting all others as optional attendees.
  • Agendas: Share a clear written agenda and goals before each meeting so invitees can decide whether their presence will add value and, if so, effectively prepare. 
  • Recordings: For important meetings, send out a recording and summary of takeaways afterward to prevent people from attending just to stay in the loop on important decisions.

These are just a few ways to lessen the burden of meetings and help people (yourself included) feel more productive and satisfied at work. Overcoming meeting overload won’t happen organically or by relying solely on individual efficiency. And as I’ve experienced, you may need to continually remind yourself to practice meeting habits that work for you (and not against you). But with effort, discipline and support from leadership, you can keep meetings under control and make them work for you and your organization.