‘Zoom fatigue’ is setting in: What it is and how to prevent it

Judy Lee, a content writer in Mississauga, Ont., started feeling sluggish lately in a way she hadn’t before, back when she could still meet clients in person.

“I was feeling really exhausted, but I didn’t know why,” she said.

Working from home in Ottawa, entrepreneur Stefan Kollenberg was experiencing something similar.

By the end of the day, he said his eyes felt sore and dry, and that he was “emotionally drained.”

Both Lee and Kollenberg would later put a name to what they were experiencing — a type of mental exertion that’s become known as “Zoom fatigue,” named after the popular video chat software. 

Although the term may not be found in psychology textbooks, some psychologists say the condition has become all too common in the COVID-19 era, with so many people working from home and holding meetings through video conferencing applications such as Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet or Cisco Webex. The fatigue can stem from any such software.

Kollenberg, whose firm, Crescendo, helps businesses build diversity and inclusion programs, shifted to a remote work model in January, before the coronavirus hit Canada and prior to the government asking workers to stay at home. Like others, he’s taken to meeting friends online as well.

“It’s not just my work calls … it’s also the casual ‘Hello.’ It’s all through a screen now,” Kollenberg said. “It’s exhausting.”

What causes it?

Psychologists say several factors lead to Zoom fatigue. Users can feel like they’re performing for the camera more than they would while meeting colleagues in person — especially when software continuously displays to a user their own live image, adding an element of self-awareness.

Marissa Shuffler, an assistant professor in industrial-organizational psychology at South Carolina’s Clemson University, calls it “having to be ‘on’ all the time.”

People typically tell themselves they must perform because a camera is staring straight at them, rather than not being the centre of attention and being able to process information during in-person meetings, she said.

It only gets worse when several faces are staring back, too, each in their own box — what’s sometimes referred to as Hollywood Squares style, in reference to the long-running TV game show.

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Janine Hubbard, a St. John’s-based psychologist, said people tend to normally only make eye contact with one or two people around a table “as opposed to that intensity” of feeling all eyes on them at one time.

“Say you’re someone who has some social anxiety,” she said. “That’s just going to magnify it.”

What can I do about it?

Hubbard recommends presenters offer other users the option to turn off their camera — or ask if it’s OK for the presenter to speak in audio-only mode.

Lee, the writer, said she would typically doodle in her notebook during long, in-person meetings to stay focused. But in a video chat, she said she feels the need to constantly stare at the camera and smile. What’s more, she ensures the background is neat and tidy, that her makeup is done and that nothing in the frame is distracting. And it can be tiring.

“Every time I got off of a Zoom call, I had to go lie down, or I had to get away from the computer and just do something else,” she said.

Indeed, experts say spending time away from the screen is key to staying energized amid frequent video chats.

Kollenberg said his typical day can include five or six video calls averaging 30 to 60 minutes each, but some days, he has to go through as many as nine. He said he’s taken to blocking time in the evenings when he can avoid screens and instead relax by reading or doing yoga.

“Just not having to think, ‘What do I look like right now’ has been a weight off my back,” he said.

Another factor that contributes to Zoom fatigue is the additional concentration needed to compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues normally visible during in-person meetings. 

“We’re doing exaggerated non-verbal cues, as opposed to much more naturalistic, relaxed ones that we would normally do,” Hubbard said in an interview over Skype. She’s been meeting with clients via video link since lockdown measures were implemented.

In meetings, she said such applications don’t allow for a nudge or a quick comment to someone sitting nearby, which would normally make people feel more relaxed.

Hubbard also pointed out that people aren’t used to staring directly at colleagues throughout entire meetings. “It’s a different type of focus and concentration that’s required to engage in these virtual conversations,” she said.

High school students get it, too

Heather Chirico, a French immersion teacher in North Bay, Ont., turned to social media this week to ask fellow teachers what to do, now that Zoom fatigue appears to have “settled in amongst high school students.”

“They’re losing interest in the online platform, I think,” she said in an interview.

Chirico has been teaching using video chat software but allows students to keep their cameras turned off for their privacy.

She said it’s easy for the students to disengage when they’re not in front of real, live people — especially this late in the school year, when it’s hard to keep their attention, even during a normal semester.

“I had the best uptake in a Zoom class when I baked bread and they sat and watched,” she said.

Risk of burnout

For employees working from home, Shuffler, the U.S. professor who specializes in the psychology of work, said longer-term risks include burnout and depression if normal workplace habits and tools are not properly adapted.

Experts say Zoom fatigue is only exacerbated when several colleagues are watching at the same time, in what’s been dubbed ‘Hollywood Squares’ view. (Cabeca de Marmore/Shutterstock)

“There’s decades of research on virtual work and some of the biggest issues really come up whenever we’re not doing a good job of matching our virtual tools … to our actual work demands, and that creates more stress,” she said.

Kollenberg, the entrepreneur, said he sometimes turns to a lower-tech solution for relief. He’s now more frequently chatting with friends over the phone, which allows him to move around his home and cut down on Zoom fatigue.

“The phone call is fine,” said Lee, the writer. “It’s what I did before this whole pandemic thing happened.”

“I think I’m going to go back to that.”

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