I desperately need breaks between my back-to-back meetings — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’m looking for some practical advice to create breaks between meetings. I started a new job about six months ago and the meeting culture here is slowly killing me. My old workplace had done some improvement work that resulted in, among other things, hour-long meetings being scheduled from :00 to :50 instead of the full hour, creating a natural break for restroom needs, coffee, etc.

Now I find myself fully scheduled in back-to-back meetings. For example, my workday starts at 8:00 and today I have virtual meetings at 8:00-8:30, 8:30-10:30, and 10:30-12:30. In our meetings, people will occasionally drop a “brb” in the chat and step away for a moment, but never for more than 1-2 minutes at a time. I would like to be able to take 10ish minutes to make a cup of tea and give my eyes a chance to adjust away from the screen, but this is certainly not something I see other people doing. Is this an unreasonable request? Our work is not life-or-death but I feel that there’s an inflated sense of urgency/importance that is probably contributing to this problem.

If you agree that it’s reasonable, do you have any suggestions about how I can carve out this time for myself? I’m exempt and not subject to break regulations, so that’s not a solution. I don’t feel that I have the standing yet to bring up the larger issue of meetings in my team/department in general. It may not work for one-hour meetings, but my thinking was that, 10 minutes before the end of a two-hour meeting, I could say something like “I’m going to drop off a little early; I need a few minutes before the next meeting.”

I have additional concerns about how this culture would affect people with a medical need for long bathroom breaks, etc., but that isn’t my situation and I have the impression I’m the only person who cares about it. It probably won’t surprise you that this organization has terrible work/life balance in general and I am already thinking of moving on; in the meantime I’m trying to make things work within this structure.

If nothing else, it’s absolutely reasonable to say at the start or end of meetings, “I’m going to drop off a little early; I need a few minutes before the next meeting” (your proposed language) or even just “I have a hard stop at 12:20 so I’ll be dropping off slightly early.”

You might also be able to let some of the meeting organizers know privately that you’re frequently in back-to-back meetings all day and will sometimes need to drop off 10 minutes early … or even say, “Would it work to schedule this meeting for 50 minutes instead of the full hour each week? I’m finding I have no time between meetings all day long and it would help to have more of a break between them.”

And you should be able to do all of that for hour-long meetings too, not just the two-hour ones. If you have concerns about how culturally acceptable that would be, you could run it by your boss or a coworker who has good judgment — but generally it should be okay to do.

Speaking of your boss: I hear you on feeling too new to bring this up in a larger way, but in a lot of roles and with a lot of bosses, it would be totally fine to say — even when new — “I’m finding I’m in back-to-back meetings all day with no time between them for the bathroom, grabbing coffee, or responding to emails. Do you think the org (or our team) would ever consider experimenting with defaulting to 50-minute meeting blocks instead of full hours? I’ve seen that work really well in the past.”

Also, do you actually need to be in all of these meetings? I know that can be hard to push back on as a new person, but it’s worth thinking about (and possibly discussing with your boss) whether you can skip some of them … as well as whether you can say, for example, “My schedule is packed right now so I’m just going to join for the first half of this call since those look like the agenda items you’ll need me for.”

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