What Is Zoom Fatigue And How Turning Off Your Self-View Could Help Navigate It
Received another email from your boss telling you to be ready for your umpteenth Zoom meeting of the week? Wish the earth would open up and swallow you whole? Before you sweep the thought away and get on with your to-do list, maybe you should spare a moment to deep dive into what Zoom fatigue is and check if you are coming down with it.
Is Zoom fatigue a real phenomenon?
As a result of the pandemic, most of us have been cornered into that one room that now doubles up as our workstation. Unlike an office setting, working remotely naturally forces us to switch back and forth between being at home and being at work simultaneously. Consequently, many are now stretched between the two camps, and this is, evidently, taking a toll on their mental health and emotional well-being.
Coined after the popular video conferencing app,“Zoom fatigue,” includes a widening range of mental irritations and annoyances such as:
- Overwhelming and mind-numbing exhaustion between calls
- A wave of demotivation and a feeling of being drained out at the end of the day
- Fragmented attention during calls
- Feeling fidgety or restless during meetings
- Recurring headaches
- Dread and anxiety at being asked to turn on the camera
It was American news channels and other media outlets that invented the term but Jeremy Bailenson, professor and the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is credited with mapping it out clearly in a paper published in February this year.
So, why are video conferences more draining than in-person meetings?
Bailenson says that there are primarily four reasons why Zoom conferences extract such a heavy cost from your mental well-being:
1. Close-up eye contact on Zoom calls is quite intense
Two factors remain unnerving during Zoom calls. The amount of eye contact and the size of our faces on the Zoom interface. Compared to real-life interactions both are quite unnatural.
During an in-person meeting, most participants are not under the constant gaze of other office colleagues. However, with Zoom calls, everyone is under watch at all times. During Zoom calls, a listener is at par with the speaker, in that he or she is being looked at by other participants. The other participants in turn keep looking at the speaker as well as other listeners. This level of all-pervasive eye contact is uncommon in meetings at the office and is strong enough to trigger social anxiety among a lot of people.
Another source of discomfort is the size of our faces when addressing others on the Zoom interface. Our faces are magnified to sizes that wouldn’t be possible in real life barring exceptional situations of “mating or conflict”. These emotions put our brains in a “hyper-aroused” state. Maintaining this state is incredibly draining when we are stuck on Zoom calls for long hours.
2. Self-view is fatigue-inducing
To view yourself constantly while speaking in a meeting is the equivalent of someone holding a mirror to your face while you address the office. To be forced to view yourself constantly while making decisions, reflecting on official matters or giving feedback robs one of a singular focus and concentration that would come naturally during an in-person meeting.
In his paper, Bailenson cites a number of studies to show that people are far more critical of themselves when they see their reflection. Meanwhile, on Zoom calls, we are forced to keep looking at ourselves all the time during the self-view mode while dealing with mentally demanding work.
3. The cognitive load is higher in video conferencing calls
In a face-to-face interaction, humans have a genetic and evolutionary memory of a million years to fall back on. Every twitch, every frown, grimace, scratch, or smirk gives out a non-verbal which our subconscious mind interprets with ease. However, during Zoom calls, everyone has to work harder to send and receive these signals.
Besides the constant readjusting of our laptops to ensure that we are in the middle of the frame, we have to amplify so many of our non-verbal clues into outsized signals like giving a thumbs up or nodding in an exaggerated manner to signal agreeability. This adds to the total bill of mental calories that we have to burn, in the course of the day, leaving us zapped and drained.
4. Zoom calls restrict our movement
In a physical meeting or an audio interaction, participants have freedom of mobility. One is not fettered inside a small frame. Also, there is no accompanying demand of professional etiquette asking us to stay put inside that said frame. Zoom calls force us to unnaturally restrict our movements inside that field of view which creates pent-up energy causing us to feel fidgety and restless.
Turning off self-view can help employees
After that long account of how Zoom calls trigger anxieties in us, it is evident that organizations need to relook at how they schedule and conduct Zoom meetings and perhaps make the move to cut them out when not needed. For individuals, switching off your self-view can make the whole process much less stressful as you are not constantly hyper-focusing on yourself.
Bailenson too argues that during long Zoom calls, one should frequently take an audio-only break. This gives us and other participants an opportunity to take a break from being non-verbally active. This lets our bodies turn away from the screen. What’s more, the audio break shuts down the constant barrage of stimuli to our brain and allows us a much-needed pit stop to recharge our energy.
Reassessing the need for a video call
In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, Zoom and other video conferencing apps were hailed as game-changers, and to be fair, they have been. By all standards, office productivity, instead of slipping, has gone up dramatically. However, it is only now that the new vocabulary of the toll that Zoom calls are inflicting is acquiring social currency. The senior leadership of many blue-chip companies are coming to terms with the fact that Zoom calls don’t necessarily have to be geared around participants making themselves visible.
After a brief interaction, colleagues should, ideally, be allowed to switch off their cameras letting them preserve their energies for issues on which their expertise is truly required. Even for those in leadership positions, long hours on the self-view mode can be quite detrimental and they should also be encouraged to switch it off regularly. Self-view adds to the misery of working remotely as one has to maintain an attentive countenance even if he or she may not have anything of worth to contribute to the meeting.
At such times, one is better off switching off the self-view mode and receding in the background, if only to save oneself from the assault of perceptual stimuli. The payoffs of such a seemingly small - and often unnoticed move - are huge. Not only does one stave off everyday fatigue but can build up their productivity without an attendant burnout.
As remote and hybrid work become the ‘new normal’ it is necessary for organizations to recognize where practices like frequent, unnecessary video meetings need to change and evolve to prioritize the requirements of their employees.