7 Ways to Beat Zoom Fatigue and enjoy online meets with friends, family or your team
For some people work-related stress has a new name – Zoom fatigue, and women experience it much more than men. These 7 ideas to keep it at bay could help change your perspective and create a healthier online interaction with your colleagues.
Though you might not of heard of it before, zoom fatigue is now officially a thing. It’s a newly-coined phrase which describes the exhaustion that happens after back-to-back video conference meetings. It’s one of the unexpected outcomes of the covid-19 pandemic, and if you’re like many other people who are now working from home, you’ve probably engaged in your fair share of the billions of conversations which now take place online. Face to face has been replaced with the virtual meet up. In fact, you don’t even have to be in work-mode; studying, social gatherings, game nights and celebrations have all transitioned online too.
But what is it about zoom meetings that makes them physically and mentally demanding enough to create a new category of tiredness? After all you’re still engaged in the same types of conversation as before.
Two new pieces of research, which are hot off the press, may provide answers to this question. I’ve broken them down from science-speak to help you figure out why it occurs, why women are more likely to experience it, and the types of practical activities that may help you fight the brain-drain and overcome Zoom fatigue.
What Is Zoom Fatigue?
Zoom fatigue, also known as a virtual fatigue, is the feeling of exhaustion that you feel after a video meeting or call. It’s a type of mental or physical work-based burnout, which also has a component of stress.
As Geraldine Fauville, at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Communication in Stanford University, explained:
“While Zoom fatigue is an emerging concept that appeared during the COVID pandemic due to the sudden increased reliance on video conferences to engage in daily tasks, very little is known about its causes and consequences, leading to limited knowledge concerning how to mitigate this new form of fatigue.”
If you find yourself trying to avoid or constantly postponing meetings, it might not be because you don’t like work, dislike your colleagues, or detest the lack of novelty and stimulation that results from working from home. Experiencing increased forgetfulness, loss of concentration, frustration and irritablity, or feeling physical symptoms like pain and muscle tension, may be a result of being Zoom fatigued.
Why Does Zoom Fatigue Occur?
This question leads directly to the brain and considers a variety of non-verbal mechanisms, which are unique to how you engage in video conferences. There’s a working hypothesis by Bailenson that five specific mechanisms are involved:
- Mirror anxiety – where seeing your face looming on screen is akin to being exposed to digital or physical mirrors. For some this can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and negativity.
- Physical restriction – where your effort to remain in the field of view of the camera restricts the movements you make.
- Hyper gaze – the bigger the meeting the greater the number of eyes looking at you. This can lead to anxiety.
- The mental effort of intentional communication – where non verbal communication, like head nodding and hand gestures, needs to be deliberately made. This adds more to your cognitive load to when these movements happen spontaneously and unconsciously.
- Interpreting non-verbal cues – Did you just shrug your shoulders? Flare your nostrils or narrow your eyes? When you’re speaking to someone who is partially obscured or sitting in the dark it takes much more mental effort to figure out their non-verbal cues.
These 5 different factors are uniquely combined when it comes to online meetings. With the increase in and growing trend for this new way of interacting (Microsoft report time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled in the last year alone, and meetings are on average 10 minutes longer ), the stage has been set for Zoom fatigue to occur.
Why Does Zoom Fatigue Affect More Women Than Men?
As a brand new phenomena, research is still in its infancy, but it seems that zoom fatigue also has a gender component. There are many other pre-existing gender inequalities in society which have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic – in employment, productivity, childcare and mental health. This is one more to add to the list, with women being more affected by Zoom fatigue than men.
Let’s take a look at the first study and explore this gender effect.
Researchers at the Department of Communication in Stanford University collected information from 10,591 participants . Their study was designed to test 4 hypotheses on how the amount of video conference usage, non verbal mechanisms, gender, and self-focused attention influence Zoom fatigue. Led by Geraldine Fauville, they found, as predicted, that:
- Fatigue increased in particular situations: when the length of meetings increased, as well as when the frequency of meetings increased and when the burstiness of meetings increased – more back-to-back meetings with less time in between.
- All 5 non-verbal mechanisms were related to fatigue: physical restriction was the strongest predictor, with mirror anxiety next.
- Women reported 13.8% higher zoom fatigue than men: this difference remained even when patterns of usage were accounted for (women were found to have the same number of meetings as men, but they were longer and more bursty).
- Participants who responded with ‘I, me or my’ in their sentences – an indicator of more self-focused attention – had more mirror anxiety and greater fatigue scores; women used more of these pronouns in their sentences than men.
But how might these findings relate to the zoom fatigue gap and women in particular?
There’s a huge body of research from the field of psychology into the role of gender on non-verbal communication. As Fauville and colleagues relate “Women are more likely than men to have greater self-focused attention during real-time views of the self, and women are more likely to experience negative effect as a consequence of that self-focus, especially in contexts that are stressful“. There’s the possibility that for those who are affected in real-time situations that sitting in meetings, with the associated pressure and need to perform, and with a constant view of ones image also has the same negative effect.
In addition, women display and interpret non-verbal behaviour differently – for example smiling more and using more facial expressions when aware they are being observed; more accurately interpreting feelings and judging emotions from facial cues. “Video conferencing may increase the cognitive load associated with these non-verbal mechanisms more for women than for men“.
This latest research suggest that this combination of patterns and mechanisms – longer meeting length, an increased exposure to self view, and increased cognitive demands – could be the significant factors which result in women experiencing more zoom fatigue than men.
7 Ways to Beat Zoom Fatigue
with mini meditation, a ‘cloaking device’ and more
One thing I’d love to avoid is the trap and convenience of a label – “Oh no! Poor thing, you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue.” This isn’t a situation which is out of your hands or something that can not be addressed or improved. If work-related zoom meetings are taking their toll on your mental and physical well being, top of the action list would be a conversation with your line manager, boss or HR department. Any diligent employer should respond appropriately to your concerns. Surely they want you to do your best work, and not feel stressed and frazzled and dreading the work day ahead?
Beyond that, here are some straightforward suggestions, which can be used both in and out of work:
1. Check your fatigue levels: The Stanford Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue (ZEF) Scale was designed and used in Fauville’s study. Get your own ZEF scale report here.
2. Use a cloaking device: Actually you won’t need some Star-Trek wizardry to overcome mirror-anxiety, or an actual cloak. Just head to the ‘hide self view’ option once you’ve entered the meeting and said hello, or turn your camera off when you’re listening and turn it on when you want to speak.
3. Stretch out: To overcome the sense of physical restriction you’ll need to create space to move. This might mean adjusting your set-up to create options to sit or stand. A standing desk is the ultimate, but quick fixes include putting your laptop or phone on a stack of books or on a bookshelf. Raising the height of your microphone means you won’t be stuck in one position trying to make sure you’re heard. Alternatively, stick your headphones in, get out of the house and go for a walk as you talk. This works particularly well if you’re camera is off.
4. Stick to a schedule: Everyone feels happily appreciated when their time is considered important. If you have a day of heavy meetings, ensure there is an agenda and a set schedule. If you’re the host, then stick to it.
5. Dial it in: If you’re meeting with one other person, and don’t have to work on any shared files, why not go ‘old-school’ and arrange to have a meeting over the phone.
6. Create a time for breaks: Schedule meetings with a 15 minute break between them to dampen the burstiness factor. Even if one runs over there might still be a chance for you to have a break and move away from your screen before starting the next.
7. Practice a mini meditation: Taking any opportunity to step away from the screen is a good habit to practice every day, and a guided meditation could be useful here.
In the second (small) study, researchers at Microsoft  recorded the difference in patterns of brain activity when 2 hours of meetings were attended consecutively, or with short breaks. One of the findings was that without a break, beta waves kept on rising, whereas with a break, beta-wave patterns had a chance to return to normal.
High beta-waves, shown in red and orange are associated with anxiety, stress, panic and arousal. This suggests that switching between back-to-back meetings can cause stress to build up, but regular breaks are enough to help your brain reset. Similarly, jumping between meetings made beta waves spike.
Those who enjoyed the down time all did the same thing – they didn’t read emails, play a game or head to instagram, instead they followed a guided meditation using an app on their phone. This short meditation also gave an additional benefit, brainwave patterns in the frontal lobe became more positively balanced, suggesting that participants were able to be more focused and attentive when online.
New research backs the idea that the challenges from new working environments can take their toll on your health. If working from home, and back-to-back online meetings are now the way you work, it doesn’t mean you need to spend all day ‘stuck’ in front of your computer or at the mercy of a punishing schedule. ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been newly coined to describe the particular type of work-related stress that can result from online demands. But there are ways to create some respite – a change in your schedule, how you choose to show up, or what you do in-between meetings can create the time to destress and relax. Which idea will you try first?
References Microsoft Work Lab (2021) The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?  Fauville G et al (2021) Nonverbal Mechanisms Predict Zoom Fatigue and Explain Why Women Experience Higher Levels than Men  Bohan M of Microsoft Human Factors Lab (2021) WTI Pulse Report
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