Waving goodbye to Zoom fatigue: what causes it and how can you prevent it

Working from home definitely has its merits, but exhaustion caused by Zoom and other video calls can really take their toll on our wellbeing.

Since the pandemic forced a huge increase in the number of video calls and virtual meetings, Zoom has become an essential platform for both our work days and social life. But there’s something about video conferencing all day, every day which is particularly exhausting.

At Team CHAMPS, we focus on presenting a wide variety of services to build and cultivate Mental Wealth including workshops, training, courses and events. All of which are currently being delivered online. And while this kind of work can be infinitely rewarding, it also results in tiredness, anxiety, and disdain- that’s even without the screen freezes and the strange echoes thrown in for good measure!

So what is it that’s tiring us out exactly?

What is Zoom fatigue?

Zoom fatigue manifests for a number of reasons, but factors such as increased eye contact and a lack of physical cues are thought to play their part. Video calls differ from face-to-face communication as they require more concentration, and we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language.

To get to grips with this, it’s useful to look at what Zoom fatigue actually is. The term ‘Zoom fatigue’ describes the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual communication platforms. Like other experiences associated with the pandemic, Zoom fatigue is hugely prevalent, intense, and an entirely new phenomenon for many of us.

What are the causes of Zoom Fatigue?

The potential causes of Zoom fatigue were first identified in a peer-review article in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour earlier this year. This review deconstructs Zoom fatigue into four specific causes: 

  • excessive amounts of close-up eye contact
  • cognitive load
  • increased self-evaluation
  • constraints on physical mobility

All of which play their part in contributing to Zoom fatigue, and can create a long-term impact upon our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

Excessive amounts of eye contact

Excessive amounts of eye contact at close distances is highly intense, and can establish a level of intimacy that simply isn’t natural for us.

On Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, behaviour that we tend to reserve for close relationships, such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, co-workers, and even strangers. 

There are two separate issues to unpack here; the size of faces on our screens, and the amount of time we’re seeing another person’s face. This can make video chats feel a little awkward to say the least.

Anyone who speaks for a living understands the intensity of being stared at for hours at a time. But Zoom’s interface design constantly beams faces to everyone, regardless of who is speaking. From a perceptual standpoint, video calls effectively transform listeners into speakers and smothers everyone with consistent eye gaze. The pressure and stress of being on display in this way forces a kind of strange, virtual presenteeism that can cause burnout all too easily.

Cognitive load

Another difficulty with Zoom is cognitive load, which is much higher in video calls. Cognitive load essentially refers to the used amount of working memory resources, and how much information our memories can hold at one time.

In face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication flows naturally, to the point where we aren’t consciously recognising our own gestures and other nonverbal cues. Video conferencing takes this away, which means we have to consciously monitor nonverbal behaviour and send cues to each other; this could be placing yourself in the centre of your camera’s field of view, nodding in an exaggerated way for a few extra seconds to show your agreement, or looking directly into the camera to try and make direct eye contact with others when speaking. 

It’s not surprising that these exaggerated actions can cause our cognitive load to be overwhelmed within a relatively short space of time.

Increased self evaluation

The consistent lack of physical and non-verbal cues within video calls make us work harder than ever to communicate with each other. The effort it takes to show that you’re engaged requires physical and mental energy. After all, we want to show our teams that we’re actively engaged and switched on.

But this feeds into our increased self-evaluation, which plays a real part in Zoom fatigue. 

Self- evaluation comes from constantly seeing ourselves during video chats in real-time, which is a fairly consuming process. We become fixated on how we look, how our homes and backgrounds look, and whether this is sending (what we think is) the right impression to others.

While we can change the settings to “hide self-view”, the default is that we see our own real-time camera feed, and we stare at ourselves throughout hours of meetings per day. We’re seeing reflections of ourselves at a frequency and duration that hasn’t been seen before. This increased lens on our own selves can interfere with our ability to keep track of the meeting itself.

Reduced mobility

As we’re spending so much time staring at ourselves and others on screen, our mobility is dramatically reduced as a consequence. 

When conducting video calls, we need to be centred within the camera’s view and maintain a suitable distance to our keyboards. This means we’re stuck in a very small physical space for the vast majority of our day, and most of the time this equates to sitting down and staring straight ahead… Not exactly comfortable.

Unsurprisingly, if we’re not moving about as frequently, we’re going to start feeling sluggish fairly quickly. If we’re meeting face-to-face or taking telephone calls, we automatically have more freedom to move around, stretch, and move our positions more regularly. Zoom calls restrict mobility so intensely that our muscles and joints can ache, which significantly contributes to the Zoom exhaustion that so many of us are now feeling.

So how do we reduce the effects of Zoom fatigue?

How can you prevent Zoom fatigue?

In order to make real, sustained change, we need to identify which particular issues are causing the biggest negative effect. The peer review conducted by Technology, Mind and Behaviour notes multiple solutions that are easy to implement. 

However, I think it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You need to focus on the changes that work for you, rather than going through the motions of fatigue and exhaustion.

Increase the distance between you and Zoom

When it comes to eye contact, researchers recommend taking Zoom out of the full-screen option and reducing the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor, which will minimise face size

You could also try to use an external, or wireless, keyboard to increase the personal space bubble between yourself and the screen – this can help video calls feel less intrusive. And if in doubt, switch to good old telephone calls for meetings that don’t rely on screen or video sharing. You might be surprised to find a traditional phone call feels far less exhausting or intrusive than a Zoom meeting.

Take a break from Zoom calls

It’s also worth noting that video calls should be limited unless absolutely necessary. Turning on the camera should also be optional, so try and give yourself an “audio only” break during long stretches of meetings. This should ease up your cognitive load and allow your memory resources to act more efficiently.

This doesn’t mean just turning your camera to take a break from being nonverbally active, but also includes turning your entire body away from the screen. Researchers suggest that including this into your working day for just a few minutes ensures that you’re not smothered with exaggerated social cues that don’t serve any particular purpose.

“Audio only” breaks also have the capacity to reduce your self-evaluation time – if you can’t see yourself, you won’t be as self-conscious! Take full advantage of that “hide self-view” button, which you can access by right clicking your own photo.

Get up and move

If you’re continuing to feel a little claustrophobic and a lack of mobility is playing a serious role in your Zoom fatigue, try to think more deeply about the room you’re video-conferencing in. 

Where is your camera positioned? 

Can an external keyboard help create distance and flexibility? 

Using an external camera that is farther away from the screen will allow you to pace and doodle in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones. This can then help create a higher feeling of authenticity in your video calls. The distance created can also help improve your concentration, as you’ll be less distracted by what’s happening on-screen.

Remember to take some time out for those all-important breaks, regardless of how busy your schedule is. It’s vital for you to step away from your computer screen, as it will reduce the physical and mental impact of your video calls. Try and take a quick walk outside if possible and turn your Zoom call into a “walk and talk” call instead. Alternatively, focus on some simple breathing techniques and yoga flows to calm your mind from our Taste of CHAMPS resources.

Final thoughts on Zoom fatigue

It’s important to recognise that Zoom fatigue is entirely normal right now. We’re one year into the pandemic, which means one full year of working from home in highly intense circumstances. Each of us are dealing with our own unique set of challenges, and are encountering new situations that we’ve never dealt with before.

Without Zoom and other video chat platforms, we wouldn’t be able to continue work, study, or interact with our loved ones. But the fact remains that humans are designed to communicate when physically present with each other. In any video conference we miss so many non-verbal cues that are essential to our communication, no matter how you structure the technology.

It’s therefore crucial that we’re taking the time to manage our health and reduce Zoom fatigue. None of us really know how deeply the pandemic has and will affect us, and finding extra support will benefit each of us in the long run. 

If you’re looking to invest in your mental health or the mental health of your team, the My Mental Wealth programme provides a simple, powerful means to harness your wellbeing and turn your mental health into an asset that drives your forward.

As focus shifts on the easing of lockdown, moving to a hybrid model (i.e. blended approach of working from home and in-office) can also help minimise Zoom fatigue. The vaccination program being conducted across the UK increases the likelihood of returning to some sort of workplace normality in due course, which opens up the opportunity for employees to return to offices and conduct face-to-face meetings more frequently.

In essence, Zoom fatigue doesn’t have to be something that we just put up with. By taking the time to understand how video calls impact our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, the better we become at finding viable solutions that work for us.

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