By Gerhard Apfelthaler
After a full year of taking meetings, interviewing candidates, attending conferences, teaching classes or attending seminars via Zoom or similar online platforms, we all know: Zoom fatigue is real, and it is awful.
While we are all thankful for videoconferencing technology, most of us have experienced that a regular eight-hour day on Zoom can be more exhausting than a 12-hour day in the office. The more obvious reasons for experiencing fatigue after a long day of staring at our computers are, without doubt, the increased screen time, the extended periods during which we sit and the rapid succession of Zoom meetings and their relative monotony. However, as recent research by Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has shown, there’s more subtlety to this modern-day challenge.
First, there’s the amount of eye contact with others. At an in-person meeting, we will only look at the same person for limited amounts of time, interrupted by note-taking, perusing materials in front of us, sipping coffee, or other activities. In a typical Zoom meeting, you will have people staring at you all the time—even if you are not the speaker.
Just imagine, says Bailenson, being in an elevator with other people. Being forced to be in close proximity to strangers causes discomfort. We react by minimizing eye contact by looking down, staring at our watches, or scrolling through our phones.
Even experienced public speakers will tell you that having all eyes in a room on you can be a source of both exhilaration and exhaustion. In addition, on most computer screens, including tablets and laptops, the size of the faces we look at can be too large for comfort. This suggests to our brains that someone is invading our personal space, which we would not be comfortable with in a personal setting, and this causes stress. For a typical video chat, the average distance from someone else’s face to yours would translate to less than 20 inches, far less than we would tolerate in an in-person setting.
Furthermore, while we haven’t experienced the company of others much during the past 12 months, we may simply have seen too much of ourselves. Constantly looking at and evaluating ourselves during video chats can be its own source of stress and fatigue. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t even like to look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning!
Finally, the research suggests that the cognitive load is much higher in video chat sessions. In normal settings, our brains have learned to perfectly interpret non-verbal cues and to enrich our understanding of situations. During a Zoom session, however, we have to work much harder to find and interpret those cues.
There are simple mitigating tactics we can all use:
• Make sure to minimize the Zoom window by taking it out of full-screen mode. Reduce the size of faces to allow for more personal space between yourself and others. Using an external keyboard and headphones with a long cable might provide additional help.
• Zoom offers an option to hide the self-view by right-clicking your own photo/video so that you are no longer looking at yourself.
• Although video seems to make online meetings a lot more like in-person meetings, allow yourself an “audio only” break by turning off your camera and turning away from the screen.
• Finally, be in the moment! From personal experience, I must confess, it’s all too easy to give in to the temptation of multitasking by taking care of email, polishing the next presentation, or working on that memo during video chats, which can add to the stress of the situation.
Hopefully, we’ll see the end of endless Zoom meetings and, with that, Zoom fatigue very soon!
• Gerhard Apfelthaler is dean and professor in the School of Management at California Lutheran University.