By Yvonne Milosevic
COVID-19 stress continues to take its toll, leaving many of us exhausted at the end of each day. Now, we’re learning that the ubiquitous tool in our coronavirus communications arsenal is partly to blame. Researchers say frequent use of video conferencing services like Zoom is mentally draining. By mid-April, “Zoom fatigue” had officially become a thing.
If we used it only for occasional team check-ins, it wouldn’t be so bad. But now, we have Zoom meetings several times a day. We use them for work. And for school. You can take an exercise class or even attend religious services via Zoom.
Currently, it’s also the safest way to socialize with friends and family through Zoom happy hours and game nights. It goes without saying that we’re fortunate to have these virtual communication tools available during the pandemic. But the reasons it leaves us feeling spent are worth noting.
What Causes Zoom Fatigue?
“It doesn’t matter whether you call it a virtual happy hour. It’s a meeting, because mostly we are used to using these tools for work,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at INSEAD, told BBC Worklife.
Video calls can tire us out for reasons both physio-and psychological. Video chat is harder for our brains to process than face-to-face communication. We need to focus intently on the conversation to absorb information, process facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. That extra effort requires more mental bandwidth.
It’s also unnerving if you’re not used to video calls. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” Petriglieri explained.
There’s another aspect of video calls that can negatively affect our psyche. On Zoom, you’re hyper-aware of how you look and sound. You feel pressure to “perform.” That alone is stressful and draining.
The good news is, we can make a few tweaks to reduce Zoom fatigue. Here are some of the research-based tips Harvard Business Review recently shared.
Tip #1 Build in Breaks
For those long Zoom meetings, it’s essential to give your eyes and brain regular mini-breaks. Researchers have found we blink far less often when we’re watching a screen compared to in-person interactions. Look away from the screen for a few seconds, minimize the window, or move it to behind your open applications, HBR suggests.
Finally, schedule at least 10 minutes to rest between meetings on days when you have back-to-back Zoom calls. You can use the buffer time to review what you discussed, stretch your legs, and mentally prepare for your next conversation.
Tip #2 Reduce On-Screen Stimuli
A Zoom meeting in gallery view “is the equivalent of trying to watch 5, 10, 20, or more different TV shows, side-by-side, meanwhile checking a mirror to see how you look. This is incredibly exhausting,” a story in Fast Company observes.
It’s near impossible not to focus on your face when you’re on video. But you can sidestep that temptation by hiding your video from your display. Now, how about all the distractions lurking in the backgrounds of each participant?
As we ponder their décor choices and spy loved ones or adorable pets walking by, our brains must process all these visual environmental cues. HBR recommends encouraging people to use plain backgrounds, if possible. Or, have everyone who is not talking turn off their video.
Tip #3 Switch to Phone Calls or Email
At the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, Zoom became a lifeline tethering us to our colleagues and friends in the outside world. Now that we’re almost two months in, it’s okay to switch to a phone call or email for some of our communication.
If you feel “Zoomed-out” before an upcoming meeting, HBR encourages asking if the other person would mind rescheduling for a later time so you can recharge. Or, see if you can take a break from video calls to chat over the phone. They’re likely feeling as much Zoom fatigue as you and will appreciate the suggestion.
Until we’re on the other side of this pandemic, video meetings will continue to be a fact of COVID-19 era life. While we can’t eliminate Zoom fatigue, we should pay attention to how it affects our minds and bodies. Incorporate these three strategies and, fingers crossed, you’ll end your days with a bit more fuel in your tank.