You’ve likely had this sneaking suspicion for quite some time, and science just confirmed it: Zoom fatigue is real. What causes “Zoom fatigue”? How does it manifest? And most importantly, what can you do about it? Here’s everything you need to know about the very real phenomenon known as zoom fatigue.
What is Zoom Fatigue?
If you’re a remote worker - or even if you did a stint as one during the closures from the pandemic - chances are you’ve heard this term. Zoom fatigue, sometimes called virtual fatigue, refers to the exhaustion you feel after any kind of video or online meeting. Though it’s not a formal diagnosis, it’s very real, and happening to many people during these unprecedented times. Many people describe the symptoms as similar to regular burnout from work or life stress.
The issue comes down to the increased cognitive demands of video conferencing communication. Even if you’re normally plugged into the world through modern technology, the past couple years really ramped up the digital activity necessary for a productive workforce. There are key benefits to platforms like Skype, Teams, Zoom, etc. After all, these tools allow people to connect - safely - face-to-face. This not only lets people stay in better touch but makes certain jobs more accessible to many individuals, and allows companies to hire for some positions without making geographic proximity a crucial factor. As with almost anything, though, there can be too much of a good thing. The increased dependency on digital meeting tools comes with a cost.
Related Article: Zoom Tips: How to Use Zoom Meetings for Remote Video Conferencing
How to Recognize Zoom Fatigue
Does that description sound familiar? If a big part of your job is communicating through digital platforms like Zoom, you’re at a high risk for developing fatigue. People in service-based careers are at particular risk for this type of burnout. The normal signs of traditional burnout include feeling generally exhausted and apathetic, as well as having work productivity suffer. Other key signs include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty maintaining relationships in your work or personal life
- Not feeling present with loved ones
- Frustration or irritability while at work
- Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, fatigue, insomnia, or unexplainable pain
Zoom fatigue manifests in similar ways, but this particular problem actually contributes to broader burnout. As the name implies, this specific type of fatigue is more likely to happen to people who consistently use - or overuse - virtual meetings. If you’re wondering if you may be experiencing zoom fatigue, consider the following:
- Have you been avoiding, canceling, or constantly rescheduling virtual conference calls?
- Do you feel extra tired or tense after a virtual meeting?
- Has switching to virtual meetings reduced your ability to multitask or handle your typical work responsibilities?
If you’re answering yes, you may be dealing with Zoom fatigue.
Why are Virtual Meetings More Draining?
Regular burnout can happen to anyone in any industry. Tight deadlines, being short staffed or low on resources, working too many hours, and other work struggles all contribute to being tense or exhausted. What is it about virtual meetings that adds to fatigue in the workplace?
1. Our brains prefer in-person communications
In some research, brain scans showed more activity in the reward centers of the brain during in-person communications vs. virtual engagement. Many people also find screen-based interactions to be intense and increase tension. After all, you’re viewing someone at an unnatural size and angle, and are much closer than you would be in person. It can be uncomfortable to feel someone looking at you so closely. Your brain may interpret all of these circumstances as a threat, which will raise tension.
2. Virtual meetings make it easy to tune out
Research shows that it can be really difficult to pay attention during online meetings (as opposed to in person ones). People tend to be more intentional and focused when sitting in a room together rather than on screens. This is exacerbated by the fact that another browser tab is only a click away, and it can be too easy to attempt multitasking.
3. We don’t connect the same way with people virtually
Research shows that people with good connections at work are happier, less stressed, more engaged at their job and even physically healthier. Connecting with others can be an important part of the quality of your work life and productivity. The truth is it’s just not that easy to forge those kinds of connections in a virtual format. Furthermore, lags in audio, technology problems, and the inability to look people right in the eye can negatively impact your ability to follow and relate to meeting participants.
4. Our brains have to work harder in virtual meetings
Human communications depend heavily on non-verbal signals. When we aren’t getting those nonverbal cues that we would normally receive in person, we have to use more cognitive effort overall to make sense of what’s being said. Without realizing you’re doing it, you will try to interpret people’s facial expressions and decode their tones through a computer screen. You also might be focusing on creating genuine eye contact in addition to speaking or listening. In short, without physical context, we have to work harder to make sense of what’s happening.
5. People don’t like to watch themselves on a screen
Have you ever listened to your voice on a recording and thought “That’s not what I sound like”? Video conferencing is similar when people use the default of seeing their own image. Looking at yourself is basically like performing in front of a mirror, and research shows that people - especially women - don’t like this feeling.
6. Stress around home life interference
Sometimes little parts of your home life, like a pet climbing on your desk, can creep into your home life. Though this is a bit less likely to occur now that the school closure period of the pandemic is over, it’s still draining to try to manage everything going on at home while on a call or virtual meeting. Everything from dogs barking to a baby crying to your microwave dinging might be heard in a virtual meeting, so it makes sense that people worry about these things and take extra care to manage their home environment while on calls. Balancing work and home life is difficult under any circumstance - doing it in these small ways on a daily basis allows more stress to creep in.
7. Video chats reduce our daily mobility
If you’re in an office, chances are you move around a little - even if it’s just to get some coffee. While on a phone call, you are able to get up and walk around. Many people find themselves pacing while on conference calls. But with video meetings, that typical mobility is limited. Limiting movement to this degree is not natural and goes against our bodies’ normal inclinations. Furthermore, some research suggests that people perform better cognitively when they are moving around. Sitting still all day is also troublesome from a physical health perspective - being sedentary is bad for your body and is more likely to contribute to other health conditions.
How to Deal With Zoom Fatigue
Getting burned out by virtual meetings can impact your overall health and wellness. It’s important to be aware of this fact and take measures to protect yourself, because virtual meetings aren’t going anywhere. This form of working is here to stay, and video conferencing tools make it easier for all of us to connect and get our work done. It’s part of our new normal, so we need to get used to it. That doesn’t mean that this type of burnout is inevitable. What can you do to avoid Zoom fatigue?
1. Tap out when needed
There are always going to be meetings that you need to attend. On the other hand, there will be meetings that you can probably skip. You might be able to just read a recap or even watch a recording of a video meeting. You’ve heard the phrase “a meeting that should have been an email”. It’s often repeated because it’s true. Encourage your team to think judiciously about scheduling meetings. When you are invited to meetings, prioritize which ones add value to the organization and help you meet strategic objectives. When you do have to be on a video call, take a break if needed. If you feel yourself starting to tune out, ask for a five minute break or say that you would like to turn off your camera for a few minutes so that you can focus better. Many people feel pressure to attend every meeting they’re invited to when working at home, to prove they are available and busy. That can backfire, though, because you run out of time for doing tasks that add real value. If you would decline a meeting if you were in the office, consider declining it as a virtual event.
2. Schedule virtual meetings for things you want to do
One stressful thing about virtual meetings is the expectation of professionalism. When you see a notification for a video meeting, you know you’ll need to tidy up your background, check your appearance, possibly change your shirt, etc. As this happens over and over, your body builds up a natural reaction that can occur as soon as you see an invitation or as soon as a meeting starts. One way to combat this is to schedule Zoom meetings for enjoyable activities, so that your automatic response isn’t one of stress. Can you schedule a Zoom (or other video conference) to catch up with friends, participate in a virtual happy hour, or take an online class for a hobby you enjoy? Some people even set up virtual meetings to watch movies or work on crafts “alongside” friends or family. Plus, scheduling time with friends is always good for your mental health and can help with overall burnout. It’s important to weaken your natural negative association with Zoom.
3. If you can, turn your video off
Every work environment is different. Some workplaces make it a requirement to have your camera turned on, while others leave it up to the individual. If you have the option to turn off your camera once in a while, do it. This allows you to multitask if needed - for example, folding laundry while you listen in on a meeting. This not only saves time and allows you to be more productive, but takes some of the pressure off of you. You won’t need to ensure you look professional and your space is cleared of distractions or things that would embarrass you. Simply skipping that preparation can alleviate stress. Furthermore, before scheduling a video meeting, consider if another format would work just as well. Could a comprehensive email cover the material? What about a simple phone call? Video meetings don’t need to be your default.
4. Schedule in a format that works best for you
If you have any control over your schedule, take the time to figure out how you can be the most productive while managing stress. Do you have more energy at the beginning of the week? If so, try to schedule meetings in the first couple days and leave the last half of the week more open. Are you a morning person? If so, try to get your virtual meetings out of the way early in the day. Or, maybe it works best for you to have virtual meetings spread throughout the week. Some people like to block off certain times of day, or create a “no meeting Monday” where the team agrees not to schedule any meetings. It's up to you to create boundaries to protect your time and mental health.
5. Implement a pre-meeting plan
A good meeting leaves people feeling more energetic, not less. It’s important to know that in addition to the stress from Zoom meetings in particular, people get stressed from not having their time valued. Whether in person or online, it’s frustrating for people to have to sit in meetings that they feel are a waste of time. Not only is participating in the meeting draining, but you might have to do some work before or after, and that is time that you’re not working on more pressing tasks. It’s not a good feeling when you don’t have control over your own day and time. Aim to schedule and participate only in meetings that are productive and help you to accomplish larger goals, without draining you.
6. Ask if the meeting needs to happen at all
Before you try to get anything on a calendar, be honest with yourself about if the meeting really needs to occur. Could the information be exchanged in an email? Could you pick up the phone and make a quick call? When you invite people to a meeting, carefully consider if you are showing a respect for attendees' time and if this is helping them to use their time effectively.
7. Invite only the necessary individuals
It’s common when planning meetings to extend invites to people who don’t need to attend. For example, could just one person from a department share the necessary information, or does the entire department need to be there? On the other hand, holding a meeting without one of the most important players will mean you have to repeat things or even reschedule a separate meeting. Hold the meeting when all of the necessary people can attend. Make sure to attend the people who really need to be involved - no more, no less.
8. Run the meeting effectively
If you’ve determined a meeting is necessary and you’ve limited the list of invitees to the right individuals, carefully plan your meeting to make the most of everyone’s time. Create a clear agenda and stick to a timeline. For larger meetings, it can often make sense to have one meeting leader and one person who will help to move things along if they start to lag. Many people like to schedule meetings to end 5 minutes early or begin 5 minutes late. This gives people a chance to use the bathroom, grab a snack, and get settled. Even better if you can leave a 5 minute buffer on either side of the meeting.
Related Article: How to Curb Meeting Fatigue and Hit Refresh
The Future of Virtual Meetings
As a society, we are constantly evolving and adapting to new things. We always need to adjust to a “new normal”, particularly when it comes to interacting with other individuals. For example, when elevators were first invented, there was no “protocol” for where to stand, whether or not to make eye contact with others, etc. Gradually people began to find norms and now we all understand how to use elevators in our daily lives. The same is true of a newer meeting culture.
Many companies are looking into ways to have more productive meetings while limiting burnout from virtual meetings. Stanford University has completed extensive research to better understand how to create best practices for video conferencing setups and how to come up with institutional guidelines. Organizations from large companies to schools to government entities have worked with the communication researchers at Stanford to better understand Zoom fatigue. One of their biggest goals was to measure how much fatigue people are experiencing in the workplace from videoconferencing.
To do this, these researchers developed the Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale (ZEF scale). It attempts to measure fatigue from interpersonal technology, as well as what causes the fatigue. It’s a 15 item questionnaire, which has been tested with over 500 participants. It asks questions about a person’s general fatigue, physical fatigue, social fatigue, emotional fatigue and motivational fatigue. Some sample questions include:
- How exhausted do you feel after videoconferencing?
- How irritated do your eyes feel after videoconferencing?
- How much do you tend to avoid social situations after videoconferencing?
- How emotionally drained do you feel after videoconferencing?
- How often do you feel too tired to do other things after videoconferencing?
The goal of such research is to help change technology in order to reduce eventual stressors. Better understanding virtual meetings and the mechanisms around them will help us to understand the optimal way of holding and participating in virtual meetings. Hopefully as a culture we start to adapt for different meetings, different settings, and different organizations.
Remote work is here to stay, and along with that, virtual meetings are likely to be part of worker’s daily lives. Remote work is truly the “new normal” with 16% of companies working completely remote, and 40% working in a hybrid model. Research shows that remote workers tend to be happier, more loyal, and even more productive. Though some large companies have “called back” their staff to a main office, generally we should plan to see more remote work, not less. This means Zoom isn’t going away. What we do hope to see is a continued shift in the way people manage virtual meetings, allowing everyone to be less stressed and more effective. Furthermore, most virtual platforms are looking for new features to improve their usability. As these companies continue to innovate, we are likely to find virtual meetings even easier and more enjoyable to use. Ideally, as a culture, we can get to the root of the issues that cause burnout and alleviate Zoom fatigue.
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