#ZoomFatigue: Why That Meeting Should’ve Been an Email

If you’ve been among the ranks of the newly-remote workforce since COVID’s onset, you’ve likely sat through your handful of Zoom meetings. Video conferencing has become a mainstay of the work-from-home workplace, and team meetings, brainstorming sessions, training assemblies, and other discussions primarily take place online versus in the office.

COVID has changed the way we work forever, and trying to figure out a new way to work is exhausting us.

Most remote employees have experienced burnout since the pandemic started, 86% of employees to be exact, according to a Q2 2021 report from TINYpulse. Add to the fact that many virtual meetings could (and should) be a quick email thread or phone call, and remote employees feel especially drained by the end of the day.

The onset of virtual meetings and subsequent fatigue has led Stanford University researchers to conduct an “empirical creation and validation” of the topic, the Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale, or ZEF Scale. The ZEF scale reveals five dimensions of fatigue, which examines:

  1. General fatigue: Refers to the superordinate experience of being tired (e.g., feeling drained.); Refers to cognitive symptoms related to fatigue (e.g., feeling hard to concentrate on things.)
  2. Visual fatigue: Defined by the National Research Council Committee on Vision as “any subjective visual symptom or distress resulting from use of one’s eyes” and is measured with items such as “my vision seems blurry.”
  3. Social fatigue: Refers to feelings of wanting to be alone.
  4. Motivational fatigue: Refers to a lack of motivation to start an activity (e.g., dread having to do things.); Refers to a tendency to be less active (e.g., get little done.)
  5. Emotional fatigue: Defined as “the state of feeling overwhelmed, drained, and used up,” occurs after interactions with other people and includes items based on emotional symptoms related to fatigue, such as moodiness and irritability.

You can learn how you score on the ZEF scale here.

In addition to the ZEF Scale, the study outlines four explanations for nonverbal causes of Zoom Fatigue which are most likely tiring you out:

1. Too much eye contact

An extraordinary amount of eye gaze at a close distance.

In a video meeting, everyone looks at each other with their faces seemingly very close to yours. Everyone is constantly watching each other with an unnatural and intense stare. This feeling of constantly being watched and at a close distance is a significant source of Zoom fatigue.

In an in-person, face-to-face meeting, you make a lot less eye contact with your fellow attendees. The attention is generally on the speaker, if not on phones, computers, or notebooks.

2. Sitting still for too long

Limited and reduced physical mobility.

When you’re in a video meeting, your primary directive is likely to assure you stay visible and attentive within your frame. This need to remain within the frame requires sitting still for long periods.

During in-person meetings, you can move around freely without losing track of the conversation. According to one study, people are more creative and communicate better while moving. This is reflected when you pace during a phone (audio) call.

3. An all-day mirror

Constant viewing of self-video.

There is a level of psychological stress caused by inevitably staring at yourself during a video meeting, especially if you’re dissatisfied with your facial appearance. You’re seeing reflections of yourself at an unnatural frequency and duration that hasn’t been seen before in history. This constant “mirror” causes self-evaluation and negative affect.

4. Nonverbal overload

Increased cognitive load for senders and receivers.

The nonverbal communication that happens in a face-to-face, in-person conversation flows naturally. In video meetings, nonverbal behavior makes sending and receiving signals harder because we normally rely on nonverbal cues.

When we can only see another attendee’s head, we must constantly monitor and exaggerate our facial expressions to make them understand us. We must also pay more attention to their exaggerated nonverbal cues and lack of body language. This could include nodding in an exaggerated way, looking directly into the camera to try and make eye contact when speaking, or centering oneself in the field of view.

It’s important to point out the significance of video conferencing during the pandemic. While Zoom fatigue is a consequence of overuse of the tool, it has immensely benefited businesses and families alike. We’ve been able to conduct meetings from a distance while staying safe from the coronavirus.

Many of these driving factors of fatigue can be fixed with minimal changes. The self-window could be hidden until needed, focusing only on the person speaking. Return to the days of phone conferencing to mitigate too much eye contact and stagnation during video conferences. Return to the days of in-person meetings when safe and necessary.

And finally – perhaps a driver of this fatigue is that we’re simply taking more meetings than we could be doing face-to-face. Videoconferencing is here to stay, but let’s aim for a return to the office conference room and gatherings at the watercooler or Keurig.

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