Throughout the pandemic, many former office workers have been necessarily glued to their computer monitors. As work migrated online, video tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts have become the rare outlet for regular face-time with colleagues. But short of an alternative for seeing your co-workers without a screen in the way, all this videoconferencing has led to an epidemic of “Zoom fatigue.”
According to a new study from Stanford researchers published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour, Zoom fatigue is basically what it sounds like — resulting from the increased strain of maintaining connections at a distance through video chat — and it leads to burnout, stress, and monotony on the job. But there are ways you can mitigate the stranglehold video conferencing might have on your spirits.
What is Zoom fatigue?
It doesn’t apply to Zoom specifically, and the company’s executives would probably argue that the term does their marketing efforts a disservice. According to Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the issue applies to all video conferencing services. Generally speaking, it describes the fatigue caused by needing to feel perpetually switched on as you jump between browser windows for various online meetings. It makes sense, too, given that studies have shown that increased screen time — especially when coupled with a sedentary lifestyle — heightens your chances of developing moderate to severe depression.
If you suffer from this, you’re probably usually drowning in a heavy schedule of virtual meetings, and feeling like you can barely keep your head above water.
What causes it
Bailenson’s research pinpoints four reasons videoconferencing can be so mentally taxing:
- Intense eye contact is tiring. Locking eyes with your colleagues to show that you’re paying attention can feel demanding. Doing so multiple times a day can feel oppressive. Short of making concerted eye contact throughout much of the meeting, your co-workers might think your attention is flagging.
- Watching yourself during video chats is fatiguing. Watching yourself in a meeting only heightens performance anxiety. The psychological cost of living throughout the pandemic is burdensome enough — why compound it with worrying about how you look to your colleagues?
- Video chats mean we move around less. If you’re constantly shackled to a desk, you’re not moving around nearly as much your body needs to. At least in a traditional office environment you might have to walk to a conference room on a different floor. Toggling between different video meetings means we sit more and move around less, to the detriment of our mental wellbeing.
- Nonverbal cues are harder to interpret. The challenge of deciphering nonverbal cues only adds to the stress brought on by video chats. This can lead to what Bailenson calls a “cognitive overload,” where your head might be swimming in assumed subtext from the conversation.
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Ways to combat Zoom fatigue
Luckily, Bailenson didn’t uncover the issues without offering solutions.
- For eye contact: The researcher recommends not using the full screen setting. This way your colleagues will at least look a little smaller, so you won’t feel quite as pressured to keep your eyes fixed to theirs.
- For self-consciousness: It isn’t really necessary to keep your camera switched on for every meeting. If you’re not presenting something, what’s the point of filming yourself? If you have to keep your camera on, Bailenson recommends adjusting your settings so you only see the other person on the chat, instead of having both videos available to both parties. In the meantime though, don’t hesitate to turn your camera off.
- For mobility: Bailenson recommends getting a different camera you can link to your feed so you can still move around, and perhaps present from a standing position if you feel so inclined. Another recourse is to turn your camera off again and to wear bluetooth headphones, so you can walk around your house or apartment.
- For anxiety over nonverbal cues: Turning your camera off also works fine, but to reinforce it even further, the researcher recommends listening to the meeting while away from your computer. This way, if you’re only using audio and feel comfortable attending the meeting while, say, putting away the dishes, you won’t be worried about over analysing all the micro-cues that routinely pop up.