Scratchy eyes, exhaustion, irritability, a feeling of dread at the thought of yet another video call. These are a few of the telltale signs of ‘Zoom fatigue’, also known as ‘Zoom burnout’ or, more generally, ‘screen fatigue’ – terms that have become as ubiquitous as ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’.
Take homeschooling, the bleeding together of our work and home lives, personal worries about the pandemic; blend all that with a diary of video calls that require constant alertness, eye contact, tech know-how and hour-upon-hour spent hunched over a screen... Is this sounding all too familiar? Little wonder the academic community has cottoned onto the phenomenon and is publishing research that seeks to explain more precisely what Zoom fatigue is and how we can prevent it.
Jeremy N. Bailenson is a professor of communication at Stanford University. In early 2021, he published one of the first peer-reviewed articles about Zoom fatigue. He explores Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective and breaks down what he considers to be the four key causes:
- Video calls require excessive amounts of close-up eye contact
- Video calls have a heavy cognitive load
- Video calls lead to self-evaluation — from seeing yourself.
- Video calls prevent us from moving around.
A 2020 article from psychologist Dr Brenda K. Wierderhold also suggests the lack of body language we see on video calls can be off-putting, the thinking being that it’s difficult to tell whether people are interested in and following along with what we’re saying. It also explains that because faces appear larger on the screen during a video call than they would in real life at a regular meeting, our brains register this as threatening — and as a result, our stress response increases.
Finally, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Many of these issues might have arisen if we were required to work from home and have lots of video calls for other reasons. But all of these things have been happening as we’ve been forced to contend with very real fears and new challenges – many of which disproportionately affect women.
We’ve all had to live with ongoing worry for the health of ourselves and our families, but research has shown that women and girls are more likely to bear the brunt of the social and economic consequences of the pandemic.
Armed with a better understanding of why Zoom fatigue happens, we have more chance of stopping it from affecting us – or at least lessening its effects. Here are some of the steps we can take right now.
HOW TO BEAT ZOOM FATIGUE
1. Turn off your face
Let’s start small with a simple tech hack we can all implement next time we have a call. Professor Bailenson explains that it can be exhausting to see yourself on your screen for so long. It causes us stress and makes us hyper critical of our looks and expressions.
Research suggests this is particularly problematic for women. A study from 1988 calls these interaction effects and suggests that women are more likely to focus on themselves when they see a video of their face, which might prime them to feel more anxious than men.
Whatever the reason, it’s time to get rid of the video of your face on your screen, so only the people you’re talking to see you and you only see them.
This is a simple fix. In Zoom, right-click your video and select ‘hide self-view’. If you’re using another type of video calling app, there should be a similar way to stop your face from showing up. Don’t skip this simple step.
2. Look at the camera, not the faces
Research from Bailerson’s article suggests prolonged eye contact with all of the faces on your screen is one of the key reasons we might experience Zoom fatigue. We need to stop staring at everyone’s eyes – especially when we’re talking to multiple people and our eyes are darting around the screen.
What’s the answer? ‘To create the illusion of direct eye contact, you should look at your camera, not at the other participants,’ writes Dr Wiederhold. You’re tiring yourself out looking at everyone’s eyes, but it doesn’t look like you’re making eye contact anyway because you’re focusing on your screen. Instead, look at your laptop’s camera. You don’t have to look directly at the camera, just around it. This can reduce the pressure and strain of constant eye contact.
3. Get comfortable
The way you sit while you work matters. Many of us know this and have tried to tweak our home working set-ups accordingly. Some of the bread and butter recommendations are: get a separate mouse and keyboard, elevate your screen so it’s at eye level, sit with a straight back with your arms at 90-degrees. But how can we change the way we sit to better suit Zoom calls?
Professor Bailenson suggests you need to add distance between you and your screen. He recommends buying an external webcam and keyboard. This doesn’t just allow you to position your camera a little further away from your face – this is important to avoid a stress response — but gives you more flexibility and control over how you sit and, ultimately, how comfortable you are.
4. Go audio-only
There’s a misconception that video calling should be the default in place of real-life meetings. But often that doesn’t need to be the case.
Professor Bailenson suggests making some of your Zoom calls audio-only. Plenty of research backs this up and suggests that voice-only communication can be a more effective — and empathic — way to interact with other people.
You could choose to switch off your camera or just pick up the phone. This will reduce the pressure and free up your body to sit differently — you could even walk and talk.
Judge this on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes forcing a video call with someone who isn’t close to you can feel awkward. But it’s also good to meet a new client over a video call too. Make up your mind each time — audio-only calling doesn’t have to become your new default, but video calling doesn’t need to be either.
5. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness, put simply, means paying attention to the present moment. Adopting some mindfulness techniques during your working day can not only improve your general mood but could reduce the effects of Zoom fatigue.
A 2021 study about the challenges of working from home suggests that mindfulness can be hugely effective in your working day, finding that it can:
- Help employees disconnect from work when they need to;
- Improve attention and performance;
- Allow people to better manage screen fatigue.
The study suggests a ‘mindful check-in’ every hour. This is when you ask yourself how you feel in your body, your mind and what’s going on in your environment as a way to anchor your attention in the present.
6. Drive the change
Many of the suggestions in this list might not be acceptable etiquette in your company culture or at team/department level. What is deemed appropriate and essential to wellbeing in one (such as turning off video) might be deemed impolite in another.
What difference can you make at your company to ensure everyone can make better decisions about their use of tech while working from home? Can you be the driving force behind creating policies that work for everyone? Can you talk to your manager about developing one together?
Just because we can communicate via video-calling software, doesn’t mean we should – at least not always.
There’s no doubt that video calling is truly brilliant, allowing us to connect with friends, family, colleagues and clients wherever we are in the world. But going forward we need to choose when we use it and how we use it so it doesn’t drain us of our valuable time and finite energy.