Zoom Fatigue - May 2020

may 2020 surviving the pandemic zoom fatigue May 15, 2020


(Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller)

A few Zoom calls for work in the morning. Logging your children into their virtual classroom around lunchtime. And a FaceTime call with your parents at the end of the day.

As social distancing remains in effect across the country during the coronavirus pandemic, people are moving from one video call to another. But there may be an unintended effect, mental health and communications experts warn: "Zoom fatigue," or the feeling of tiredness, anxiousness or worry with yet another video call.

"When we're on all these videos calls all day long, we're kind of chained to a screen," said Suzanne Degges-White, a licensed counselor and chair of counseling and counselor education at Northern Illinois University.

"It's just psychologically off-putting," she said. "I've got to show up again but the thing is, we're not really showing up anywhere."

Why are we all experiencing 'Zoom fatigue'?

From having to focus on 15 people at once in gallery view or worrying about how you appear as you speak, a number of things may cause someone to feel anxious or worried on a video call. Any of these factors require more focus and mental energy than a face-to-face meeting might, said Vaile Wright, the American Psychological Association's director of clinical research and quality.

"It's this pressure to really be on and be responsive," she said.

According to Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the platforms naturally put us in a position that is unnatural. A combination of having prolonged eye contact and having someone's enlarged face extremely close to you forces certain subconscious responses in humans.

"Our brains have evolved to have a very intense reaction when you have a close face to you," he said. 

During normal, in-person conversations, "eye contact moves in a very intricate dance, and we're very good at it," Bailenson said. When one person looks one way, another changes where they look. A small eyebrow raise from someone at one end of the room can trigger a glance between two people on the other. But typically, we don't stare into our colleagues' eyes, up close on a computer screen, for an hour at a time.

So much of human communication is through these nonverbal cues that can be either lost or distorted in a video conference. 

"In a way, we're closer, but we're still communicating through this weird filter, so it gets tiring to get to the real stuff through this filter," Degges-White said.

Why do our social video calls feel stressful, too?

While some people may be experiencing fatigue with back-to-back Webex or Teams calls, video conferencing technologies have still benefited workplaces in many ways during stay-at-home orders, Bailenson said.

He described a conference he had set aside two work days for that ended up finishing within two-thirds of one day.

The virtual conference format kept "the people most critical to the conversation talking," he said, and the attached chat box feature on most video calls also helped narrow people's focus and keep a written record.

For video calls with old friends or virtual family reunions, the forced structure can create different challenges though.

"A lot of us are thinking, I want social stuff to be fun and having to be locked in front of this computer ... it's just not how I want to be spending my time," Bailenson said.

Degges-White described it as creating a structure to conversation like email. One person speaks and everyone takes their turn and waits to reply. 

"That's not normally the way we do social interactions," she said. "It's not that easy to give and take." Side conversations are lost. Some people who are naturally reserved may never get a word in. Others may get distracted by people in their house.

The context of this happening during the coronavirus pandemic can't be lost either, Wright said. We're worried about loved ones but apart from them physically.

How do you combat 'Zoom fatigue'?

Not every video call actually needs to be a video call.

"Be thoughtful about how you're using Zoom calls," Wright added. "You probably don't need video chat for all your work."

She also suggested taking breaks, if possible, in between calls and creating a separate physical space where you take work video calls and personal video calls.

Bailenson suggested asking to set ground rules before a call: "It may be awkward for 10 seconds, but say, 'Can we just go audio only?'"

He said for some meetings he's in now, only the person speaking has their video on. And at least for one meeting a week with his team, he says they all keep video on the entire time to have that shared sense of being together.

If you're uncomfortable with how you look on camera, it's worth spending time adjusting your settings and trying different lighting in your house, Bailenson added. 

If you notice one person not very responsive or always turning their video off, check in with them one on one, Degges-White suggested. The large video conference can be intimidating, whether it's work or personal, and some people don't like to speak up in large groups.

"Don't expect these Zoom groups to replace other ways you communicate with people," she said.