While the countdown to in-person meetings has already begun, some of us are at the stage where our tolerance levels for back-to-back online conferencing meetings is beyond waning. We’ve all heard the term by now, but what exactly is Zoom fatigue, and is there a way to overcome this Covid-inspired phenomenon? The answer may just surprise, and hopefully, reassure you.
What is Zoom Fatigue?
We’ve heard the term “Zoom Fatigue” to describe the tiredness, worry or burnout linked with using virtual online platforms as our main mode of communication with others. It’s widely prevalent but also a new phenomenon. Although face-to-face meetings will be permitted under the guidelines of Boris’ roadmap out of lockdown, increased virtual communications, instead of making unnecessary journeys, may be here to stay. So what can we learn about this strange tiredness, and are there ways to combat online fatigue?
Experts believe that audio is one of the key factors that make video meetings draining. Apparently, those millisecond delays in virtual verbal responses negatively affect our interpersonal perceptions, even without any internet or technical issues, according to a recent article in Psychiatric Times written by Dr Lee, Assistant Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Other explanations pointing to the fatigue are other pandemic-related stresses such as increased financial worry, juggling home-schooling and childcare, and unemployment. We also seem to have an increased ability to virtually multitask, which threatens our attentional capacity.
What is the psychological explanation?
Lee explains in his article that it’s helpful to explore the process of mental fatigue. He believes that a core component of fatigue is a rewards-costs trade-off that happens in our minds unconsciously. Basically, that means we’re experiencing a lack of perceived reward in relation to our video conferencing encounters with colleagues.
A lack of social interaction is very much associated with our reward circuits, and online interactions just don’t seem to create the same levels of oxytocin—the hormone involved in social bonding. MRI data reveal that live face-to-face interactions, compared to viewing recordings, are associated with greater activation in the same brain regions involved in reward. Meaning that active and in-person social connections are associated with a much greater perceived reward.
Another reason why Zoom fatigue can strike is because of eye contact, or lack of it. There is a lot of evidence to suggest how good eye contact improves connection with others. However, especially during conferences with three or more people, it can be impossible to distinguish mutual gaze between any two people.
So the ‘rewards’ are reduced with these types of Zoom interactions and they also require more effort, hence why we can feel so drained at times. Plus, a lot of our communication is actually unconscious and nonverbal, as emotional content is very quickly processed through social cues like touch, joint attention, and body posture. We use nonverbal cues to find out information about other people and engage in reciprocal communication in a matter of milliseconds. Dr Lee reports that, on video, most of these cues are difficult to visualise, since the same environment is not shared and both subtle facial expressions and full bodily gestures may not be captured.
Without the help of these unconscious cues in which we have relied upon since infancy, we end up over-compensating, and more cognitive and emotional effort is required. In a nutshell, video conferences such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, can be associated with low reward and high cost. However, there are ways we can mitigate some of these challenges with video meetings until we resume back to how things were.
Practical ways to reduce Zoom fatigue
Online trainer for a national charity, Judith Fitzsimons, has been overseeing online training full-time for the last 12 months. Pre-pandemic, she travelled the UK to host training in-person. When the pandemic hit, she had the task of taking all of her training programmes and turning them into an online format. She believes there are some practical ways to make some small steps in reducing Zoom fatigue.
She said, “Let’s face it, nothing beats face-to-face interaction; human connection is so important. However, in the short term, there are some ways we can work with Zoom while we’re still in this in between state and should we enter another phase like this again.”
“Firstly, by looking directly at the camera, this will give the other person a sense of connection. It doesn’t necessarily help the person giving the eye contact, but the other person will benefit. If we can at least get into the habit of looking into the camera when we’re the one talking, especially when on a call to more than one person, we will limit the sense that we are looking away when we are having conversations with others.”
“In terms of body language, and our need for nonverbal cues, one simple way to overcome the obstacle of not seeing enough of the person is if we can move the camera back it bit more so we can each show more of ourselves, that way we can see more of our co-worker’s gestures, again, in hope of better connection.”
Luckily, with the softening of restrictions, we look forward to that all-important face-to-face contact and office banter very soon – lunchtime strolls with a colleague and coffee break catch-ups are all just around the corner. Until then, lets ensure we’re taking lots of small comfort breaks, and continue to find that all-important connection in other ways that you can.