I have a weekly Thursday morning run with my girlfriends. We usually end up talking about all things weird and wonderful. This week our conversation was about online meetings and how exhausting it can be sitting in your home office chair and talking to a screen for a couple of hours per day. It is called Zoom fatigue.
Now many of us are working remotely and spending a lot of time on Zoom and other video meeting platforms. Additionally, some of us might still be having social video catch-ups with colleagues as part of relationship building and teams keeping in touch.
All of this, in addition to our usual video calls with friends and family, fills our days with so much more screen time and it can be incredibly tiring.
What is Zoom fatigue and why online meetings are so tiring
It seems that experts are agreeing that having an online meeting instead of a face-to-face one, takes more physical and emotional effort. This Zoom fatigue has to do with how we process information while communicating over live video.
For example, when using a gallery view on a video call, we end up staring at a small screen with multiple windows. The presence of the audience’s faces on screen coupled with the need to focus on the meeting puts an undue load on our concentration. This experience is quite different from having a face-to-face meeting, where we would typically focus on one or two individuals at a time.
The tax your brain pays
Looking at multiple faces at the same time floods our brain with non-verbal data. Our brain continually interprets non-verbal signs, such as eye contact, facial expressions or even hand gestures. Even if we do not realise it, we communicate even when we are quiet or keeping still.
Most of what we say comes across through our body language and tone of voice. Research shows that over two-thirds of communication happens through non-verbal means. Perceiving these cues come naturally to most of us. Our brain uses all this information to make sense of everything that has is conveyed.
Reading these non-verbal signals might be challenging when a person is only visible from the shoulders up, limiting the possibility of seeing hand gestures and body language.
It is even more challenging when video quality is poor, missing facial expressions and making the tone of voice less obvious. This decoding of many people at once with the added challenges of limited non-verbal cues and poor connectivity can be an immense brain drain.
When eye contact is a struggle
Also, sustained eye contact is exhausting. With an in-person meeting, we have opportunities to look around and use our peripheral vision to glance out the window or look at other things, with little concern that people might be wondering if we are distracted.
During video calls, we have to engage in a ‘constant gaze’ to confirm to others that we are paying attention. Constant eye contact can be even more challenging for some of us. There are scientific reasons why some people struggle to look someone in the eye and hold a conversation with them.
Interesting, it seems that for some others, their brains cannot handle the tasks of thinking of the right words and focusing on a face at the same time. This cognitive overload could partly explain why we sometimes need to look away when answering a question that takes a bit of high-level reasoning.
Recognize when you need a break
Limited breaks between meetings are adding to the tiredness. We book back-to-back meetings with no travel time or gaps to take a visual and mental break. We are standing up less and missing out on walks in-between meetings.
One friend has even mentioned that she had to text her husband in the next room to bring her a glass of water, not having time in-between hour-long meetings to get up and get a drink. We know that dehydration increases fatigue. As it is, many of us fail to drink sufficient water to keep our bodies functioning at optimal levels. Keep that bottle of drinking water at hand!
Sleepiness and decline in concentration can be side effects of mild dehydration. This has a knock-on effect on our sleep quality, causing us to spiral into more fatigue. This is partly why we feel so tired after a ‘heavy’ night out with the girls.
A quick win is sometimes preferred
Another reason that we are so tired is that it might be taking us longer to get things done using video platforms. As much as a colleague interrupting you with a quick chat to get something done is annoying, (referring to our previous in-office irritations), it helped with quick problem solving and action.
Instead, we are having video meetings, which typically end up taking much longer. We have certain formalities around video calls, maybe because we are dialling into someone’s personal space instead of sharing neutral office space. This could add to the time spent on our computers.
The steps to take to navigate this new normal
We are agile and intelligent. With some clever changes to our schedule and daily routine, we will likely adapt to the mental and physical demands of the additional video calls during our office hours.
A first step is to lessen other screen time in addition to video calls. Hours quickly add up when combined with other devices and resources.
Step into a walking meeting
Make sure you get outside and spend time in nature away from screens. Try an adaptation of a walking meeting, having a phone call meeting and getting some sunlight and fresh air at the same time. We know there are many health benefits from walking and you will most likely get rid of your tiredness and alleviate some stress.
Research shows that a small number of short walks have the same benefits as a long walk, making it somewhat easier for us to fit it in during our day.
Try a stand-up meeting
Another great way to fight Zoom fatigue is to stand up during meetings and not just in-between. I recently attended a 3-day training course via video conference and we were encouraged to get up and move around. When communicated upfront people feel less awkward to move around.
Having a makeshift standing desk may also help. You might already have props in your house you can use, your ironing board is one such item.
Video calls make it easier than ever to lose focus, we all do it at some point and yes, of course, we can multitask – send a quick text, answer an email or scroll through Instagram.
Focus on one thing at a time
However, doing multiple things at once can reduce performance. Research shows that switching between tasks requires you to turn some parts of the brain on and off for different types of work. It seems our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. What we are doing is quickly shifting our attention and focus from one thing to the next.
Research shows that when multitasking, we cannot remember as well as when we focus on one thing at a time. This switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow you down. Some studies suggest that multitasking can lessen productivity by as much as 40%.
Try a showing up with voice only
Use your phone instead of your computer to dial in. This gives you some freedom to move around and to ‘show up’ voice only. We all need that visual break during the day. You can get your meeting done and also give your overstrained eyes a well-deserved break.
There are many other small cheats you can apply to help combat Zoom fatigue while we wait and see how long we will be encouraged to do our jobs remotely. In the meantime, it is key that we prioritise our well-being, looking at mental and physical health, and being kind to ourselves and others.
Reach out if you need help.