Zoom fatigue: how to avoid getting tired during video conferences

The use of video conferencing apps has increased rapidly due in large part to the coronavirus pandemic. However, while employers may find virtual meetings a good way to keep business running as usual, many employees find them to be a burden.

Keep reading to find out what the recently recognized phenomenon of Zoom fatigue is all about, including its causes, and what you can do to avoid it.

What is Zoom fatigue?

The exhaustion that comes with back-to-back meetings is nothing new. When many people started working from home at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, most workers assumed they would be attending fewer meetings and that a couple of online conferencing calls wouldn’t cause too much stress. They perhaps pictured sitting comfortably at home, joining a meeting with a few clicks, and participating without even putting on their dress shoes. However, it quickly became clear that online meetings can cause stress and exhaustion.

As public discourse on the topic increased, a term for this phenomenon emerged: Zoom fatigue.

Zoom is one of the most common tools for video conferencing and lends its name to the phenomenon. But Zoom fatigue isn’t limited to calls made with Zoom – the same kind of exhaustion has been observed on calls with other video conferencing software. The term thus describes the exhaustion that comes from video conferences in general.

Zoom fatigue: the consequences of video conference overload

At this point, there are few studies worldwide on the effects of video conferencing on employees’ physical and psychological well-being. Many current assessments are based on anecdotal evidence and the moods captured in the media.

One study coming out of Germany (Ludwigshafen University of Business and Society) offers a first glimpse at some experimental results. The study examined how common Zoom fatigue is among German office workers, finding that 60% of respondents are familiar with the phenomenon and 15% consistently suffered from it.

The study also offers insight into the symptoms of Zoom fatigue, indicating that it goes beyond pure exhaustion or tiredness. Participants in the study reported the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increasing impatience and irritability
  • Headaches and back pain
  • Aching limbs and stomach aches

As a result of fatigue, productivity and the quality of work decreases, and the likelihood of making mistakes increases.

With just 422 participants, the study is not highly representative. However, from a psychological perspective it’s quite easy to explain why video conferences are so straining.

Five reasons why video conferences make you so tired

Video conferencing software is a practical tool, but virtual meetings come with a number of new psychological challenges for participants.

Non-verbal communication signals are difficult to recognize

Video conferences have the advantage of displaying gestures and facial expressions, but our field of vision is nonetheless limited. Depending on how someone’s camera has been set up, it can be difficult to read facial expressions. And in meetings with a large number of participants, it’s hardly possible to gauge everyone’s reactions.

Body language, eye contact, and the position of the speaker in the room are all non-verbal cues that help people to make sense of what is being said. In online meetings, our brain is constantly working to compensate for this missing information. This kind of effort has been demonstrated to cause exhaustion, as shown in a study from 2008.

Increased self-awareness causes stress

You’ll rarely see a mirror hanging in a conference room, and there’s a good reason for that: Many people have a difficult time seeing themselves in the mirror. But in online meetings, you constantly see live footage of yourself among all of the other participants. This increases self-awareness and with it self-criticism. Participants may get insecure and start to question themselves. They check whether, for example, their clothes are in order and they look professional. These musings not only contribute to Zoom fatigue but also take attention away from the actual content of the meeting.

Technical difficulties interfere with and influence the flow of conversation

Despite high-speed internet and fiber-optic networks, you will always experience delays and lags in video conferences. One study found that even a one-second delay places strain on the human brain. And it doesn’t stop there: Delays also cause us to view our conversation partners as less attentive, conscientious, and extroverted.

The interpersonal level suffers

Regardless of whether there are technical difficulties, simply communicating about tools such as video conferencing leads to less trust and mutual understanding between people. This was demonstrated in a study that looked at the treatment of asylum seekers at Canadian immigration offices.

In addition, it’s not possible to make direct eye contact with others when video chatting – to do so you’d have to look into the camera, which means that you’re not looking into the eyes of the other person. But direct eye contact is important for building trust and signaling that you’re paying attention.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, people try to compensate for these shortcomings on the non-verbal level in order to create a quality interpersonal interaction. This kind of mental work leads to exhaustion and ultimately to Zoom fatigue.

Attempts at multitasking increase

At an in-person meeting, it’s almost impossible to inconspicuously check your emails, make appointments, or send out messages while your co-worker discusses a project. However, if you’re already sitting at your computer for a Zoom call, it’s easy to open up another window or type on your keyboard without anyone noticing. During longer meetings, participants tend to use their time to get other things done on the side. The idea is to increase productivity, but this kind of multitasking is taxing and decreases the quality of one’s work.

How to combat Zoom fatigue

Rethink the number of meetings planned

In trying to limit Zoom fatigue on your team, it helps to check how many online meetings are really necessary. Does every team member need to take part in every meeting? Would a single weekly meeting suffice, in which all topics are discussed at once?

Limit the length of meetings

If you can’t reduce the number of video conferences, you should at least try to limit their length. Experts recommend holding meetings for a maximum of 45 minutes and scheduling them so that participants have a break of at least 15 minutes before their next commitment. This way, the brain has a chance to recover a bit from the digital overload.

Consider a telephone call instead

Video conferences are often the default medium for meeting remotely. But in many cases, they’re not the best format.

If your goal is simply to convey information and if the participants already know each other well, a telephone conference will probably lead to better results. That way, people can focus on the content of the call and lose less energy analyzing non-verbal input from co-workers, or worrying about their own appearance.

Video conferences, on the other hand, are a better idea when the goal is for people to get to know each other or when the personal level is particularly important. In such cases, a video call is the closest replacement for in-person interaction. If you take the right things into consideration, you can also plan successful meetings online.

Zoom fatigue: not just an individual problem

Remote work will surely remain an important part of the working world, even after the effects of the pandemic have subsided. This means that Zoom fatigue will continue to present a challenge for companies that want to effectively manage their teams.

Businesses should try to understand the challenges that come with video conferences and appreciate that they aren’t solely the responsibility of individual employees. Instead, companies would be well advised to introduce clear standards for the organization of their teams. This creates security for decision makers, strengthens the productivity of the company, and supports the health of employees – a win-win-win situation.

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