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‘Zoom Fatigue’ is Contributing to Employee Burnout. Here’s How to Cope.

Are you feeling exhausted and drained? Do you suffer from a peculiar combination of eye strain, headaches, and general malaise only experienced after a long day of virtual meetings? You are not alone. Zoom fatigue entered our lexicon early in the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. And now, two years later, it persists as virtual meetings have become a daily fixture of remote and hybrid work environments.

There are definite benefits to virtual meetings, from allowing people to safely connect face-to-face to making certain jobs more accessible for those with chronic health conditions and disabilities. But, with all things, there are costs. 

So Many Meetings

The expectations related to being employed haven’t changed, regardless of which model you’re working in. Employers still expect collaboration, group project discussions, and for work to be done on-time and with quality. This means meetings and lots of them. 

If it feels like you’re having more meetings than it did when you were in the office, that’s because you are. In fact, the number of meetings per day has actually increased since many workplaces went completely remote in 2020. Zoom went from a total of 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020.

Being a remote worker means you can no longer swivel your chair to bark at a coworker about something or stroll down the hall to confer with your manager. Simple questions that were easy to get answers to at your coworker’s cubicle (in theory) are now turning into meetings. Even getting someone to agree to a meeting can be a task in and of itself as you attempt to track them down or find time in an already packed schedule. You no longer have the advantage of in-person nagging. Virtual work means extra work. 

The Psychology of Zoom Fatigue 

Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms. In the first peer-reviewed article focusing on virtual fatigue from a psychological perspective, published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior, Bailenson took the medium apart and assessed virtual videoconferencing on its individual technical aspects. He identified four causes associated with Zoom fatigue. 

Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense. 

Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens, is unnatural. In a normal meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes, or looking elsewhere. But on video calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. A listener is treated nonverbally like a speaker, so even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased.

Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing. 

Most video platforms show a square of what you look like on camera during a chat. But that’s unnatural, Bailenson said. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” he added.

Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility. 

In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move. But with videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. Movement is limited in ways that are not natural.

The cognitive load is much higher in video chats. 

In regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals. This manifests itself as feeling the need to always to be “on.” Many organizations also have specific rules about where someone can hold a video conference and what should be worn. Coupled with home-life interference, this can create cognitive stress.  

Recognizing the Connection Between Zoom Fatigue and Burnout

Work burnout is nothing new.  The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger.  He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions, such as healthcare.  Nowadays, it can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.       

It’s important to distinguish between burnout and exhaustion.  Exhaustion is a normal reaction to stress.  Burnout is far more than feeling blue or having a bad day. It is a chronic state of being out of sync with your job, and that can be a significant crisis in your life. Other symptoms of burnout can include:

  • forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty maintaining relationships and being present with loved ones
  • frustration and irritability with co-workers
  • physical symptoms, like muscle tension, pain, fatigue, and insomnia.

Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do you find yourself avoiding, canceling, or rescheduling video conference calls?
  • Have you noticed that after a meeting, you’re incredibly tense or tired?
  • Has switching to virtual meetings impaired your ability to multitask or handle your work responsibilities?

Virtual burnout and fatigue have very similar ways of showing up, with the primary difference being that virtual fatigue actually contributes to overall burnout. 

Coping Mechanisms

Whether we like it or not, virtual communication is not going away. But there are ways you can combat the fatigue, take back control of your workday, and not feel so…blah.

Minimize and go external.

It’s tempting to have the virtual platform up and running and in your face at all times but the intensity is too much. Human beings should only hold eye contact for approximately 3.3 seconds so take the meeting out of full-screen and reduce the size of the window to minimize face size. Also get in the habit of utilizing an external keyboard to give your fingers room to roam and to increase the personal space bubble between yourself and the screen.

Ditch the mirror.

Use your platform’s privacy settings to hide your self-video. This will help with engagement and lessen the creep factor of constantly seeing your own teeth. Establish expectations within the organization about what types of meetings necessitate having a camera. In meetings where cameras are unnecessary, turn it off.  

Think about your space and get up.

If you’re constantly having to shift your work from the kitchen table to the couch and back to the kitchen table, this takes away from your productivity time and increases stress. If at all possible, dedicate a space to work that allows you the freedom to spread out and be as comfortable, and focused, as possible. And, don’t forget to get up once in a while, including during meetings if you’re able. Set a timer if you need to. 

Give yourself a break.

During long stretches of meetings, Bailenson suggests giving yourself an “audio only” break. “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

Ask yourself “does this need to be a meeting?”

Not everything requires a meeting. If it’s a simple request or ask, send an email or instant message. Chances are your colleagues are just as burned out as you are and would appreciate the virtual break. 

Make time for in-person communication with the people you love and care about.

If you live in a part of the world that has reopened or is reopening, make a date to have an in-person chat or meeting with a friend or loved one. It’s more important than ever to maintain the intimacy of our close relationships.

Be Prepared to be Flexible

The world is changing and transforming at a dizzying pace and adapting to it all can be stressful. It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing virtual fatigue or eliminating unnecessary meetings. Organizations are expected to flex and scale as part of their business strategy but all of us should adopt this mindset as well. We have to adapt and grow and that means figuring out what works best. 

Experiment with different spaces in your home to work or with different meeting strategies. Research best practices on remote work, home office setups, and virtual meetings and put that into practice. Remind yourself that you’re human and working like a robot is not conducive to productivity or being engaged. Develop your skills in recognizing virtual fatigue and make an effort to put yourself first every once in a while.

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