"Zoom Fatigue" Isn't Just A Buzzy Term: 4 Common Causes + Fixes
Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself engaging in a pattern of committing to, then shamefully dodging, scheduled Zoom calls with friends. Despite missing my interactions with friends (social interaction is essential to overall well-being, after all), I couldn't seem to muster enough energy to log on. This feeling, I later learned, has been coined "Zoom fatigue," and I'm not the only one who's experienced it.
The phenomenon has become so widespread—due to an increase in video chats for work meetings, birthday celebrations, and even first dates—researchers from Stanford University set out to understand the psychological effects of too much video conferencing.
The study, led by Jeremy Bailenson, Ph.D., founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), was published Tuesday in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior. It confirms that spending too much time on video chat is, in fact, tiring people out. They pinpointed four main reasons, along with practical solutions.
4 causes of "Zoom fatigue"—and fixes:
1. Excessive close-up eye contact.
In the right context and with the right person, eye contact can increase intimacy and communication. Since it is an intimate act, though, too much eye contact can be intense and somewhat stressful. Not only do video conferences require us to make eye contact with someone for long periods of time, but the video format generally increases the size of and proximity of the speaker's face. Imagine if you were in person—would you be sitting that close to one another?
"With Zoom, all people get the front-on views of all other people nonstop. This is similar to being in a crowded subway car while being forced to stare at the person you are standing very close to, instead of looking down or at your phone," Bailenson writes in the study.
What to do about it: Stand face-to-face with someone you live with and measure the distance you feel comfortable talking to them. Next time you're in a Zoom meeting, make sure your laptop or monitor is at that comfortable distance, or farther away.
Live alone? Bailenson says his comfortable distance was 50 centimeters (or about 20 inches), and according to research on personal space, anything less than a 60-centimeter distance is considered "intimate."
2. You're seeing yourself constantly in real time.
Aside from dancers, Bailenson says, most people aren't used to working in front of a mirror all day—that is, until video conferencing became common. Research shows that people are more likely to evaluate themselves when seeing a mirror image. "Given past work, it is likely that a constant 'mirror' on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect," the study states.
What to do about it: If turning your camera off is not an option, use the "hide self-view" feature on Zoom.
3. Less mobility and movement.
"During face-to-face meetings, people move," Bailenson writes. "They pace, stand up, and stretch, doodle on a notepad, get up to use a chalkboard, even walk over to the water cooler to refill their glass." These opportunities for movement are limited, if not entirely unavailable, with video meetings. In order to stay visible and centered on people's screens, most people are confined to a small physical space until their meeting is over.
What to do about it: Create a larger field of view (aka more space to move around) by pushing your device further back.
Also, try to be more intentional about when you're using videoconferencing versus phone calls. "Phone calls have driven productivity and social connection for many decades," Bailenson says, "and only a minority of calls require staring at another person's face to successfully communicate."
4. Nonverbal cues are harder to interpret.
Nonverbal cues are an essential aspect of communication, and research shows they're easier to interpret in person than on video. Additionally, Bailenson says people giving the nonverbal cues have to be more aware and exaggerated to get their message across, which can be draining. "Even the way we vocalize on video takes effort." One study found that people speak 15% louder on video than they do in person.
What to do about it: Bailenson recommends taking an "audio-only" break on days when you have several long meetings. "This is not simply you turning off your camera...but also turning your body away from the screen," Bailenson says. This way you neither have to perform nor interpret nonverbal cues.
The technology that allows co-workers, students, teachers, therapists, patients, and more to stay connected in the midst of a pandemic is a critical and groundbreaking tool. As with all technology, though, there are some consequences with overuse. If you're experiencing Zoom fatigue, you're not alone. Keeping these simple fixes in mind may alleviate some of the burden.
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