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Overcoming "Zoom Gloom": Tips for Avoiding Video Call Fatigue

woman rubbing her eyes

Summary: A full day of video calls and meetings can be exhausting! This article explains why, plus five tips to help minimize meeting overload and Zoom Gloom.

In a Work from Anywhere World, it’s safe to say we spend a lot of time “in front of the camera” and on screen, though today’s screen time is far from the glamour of Hollywood (though some people do have some incredible background effects for their shots). 

As was mentioned in the recent guide, “9 Tips to Successfully Work From Anywhere,” videoconferencing is an essential way for staying connected, often replacing in-person interaction and office “face time.” It also helps fill in the communications gaps between emails, instant messages and phone calls, providing relevant context through people’s expressions and body language. 

Yes, video calls help us stay more personally connected to our clients, teams and tribes. But anyone who has spent a large chunk of their day on conference calls and in Zoom meetings knows exactly how mentally exhausting they can be. Some call it “Zoom Fatigue.” Others call it “Zoom Gloom.” Call it what you like, but it’s definitely a thing.

So, why are meetings that use Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and other video conferencing apps so draining? Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, suggests a number of research-backed reasons in his February 2021 article in the journal, Technology, Mind and Behavior. 

Forced Intimacy and Multitasking

For starters, imagine that someone you know enters the elevator with you, stands less than a foot away, and stares at you while making conversation. How about the “close talkers” from Seinfeld? Unnatural, right? Video conferencing forces us into a similarly awkward space. As Bailenson writes, “On Zoom, behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships — such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up — has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.”

That level of intimacy, especially with people we don’t know particularly well, is mentally exhausting, especially over long periods of time. There’s a reason we don’t look at the strangers with whom we share an elevator — we’re already forced into a closer proximity that we’d ordinarily be comfortable with. Looking away is a means to relieve the pressure of that forced closeness. But on a video call, that rarely occurs. There’s no way around it.

Additionally, a solid schedule of Zoom meetings can be mentally taxing. For example, while people’s meeting performance is good in most cases, the interaction is not entirely in sync with others in the meeting. We may not consciously recognize the delay between when someone speaks and others react, but it exists. Of course, our minds do pick up on it and are forced to adapt. It creates a dissonance that makes our brains work just a little harder to overcome. Over the course of an entire day, that extra effort results in fatigue.

In addition to response delays, our brains also have to adapt to the size of people’s faces on screen and the ability to read any microexpressions — even their energy — as they communicate via video. Technology offers a solution for that. Mounting multiple large, connected monitors allows for people’s faces to be more life size and “real,” which creates less strain and fatigue.

In addition to this, most video meeting apps require us to pay attention to multiple stimuli simultaneously — a chat room, people raising their hands, people wanting to enter the room, the mute button, screen sharing, and so on. Over time, juggling all these different buttons, bells and whistles, shifting between different modes of communication, can also become tiring, especially as humans are not necessarily good at multitasking

Finally, there’s the problem of constantly seeing your own face. Ugh. Seriously, how many people keep a mirror propped up on their desk so they can see themselves work all day! But that’s exactly what most video conferencing apps force us to do by default. As we speak, we see ourselves, and like most people, one can’t help but constantly evaluate how we look and how we appear (“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”).  For most, it’s exhausting to look at that “meeting mirror” all day long.

5 Strategies to Brighten Up Any Zoom Gloom

Thankfully, there are ways to reduce these cognitive burdens so video calls don’t leave you fried up and burned out at the end of the day. 

  1. Don’t multitask: If the conversation veers into an area that doesn’t really concern you, it’s easy to think, “I’ll keep listening in the background while I send this email.” Don’t do it. There’s plenty of multitasking already going on in any video conferencing call. Adding to the mental load by doing two (or five) things at once may wear you out faster.
  2. Build in breaks: Compassionate leaders of humane and productive companies understand the mental toll of nonstop video calls. On busy meeting days, see about wrapping things up a few minutes early, allowing others to get a small break. For longer sessions, give people a few minutes to step away from the screen every 25 minutes or so to clear their heads. It can make a big difference.
  3. Turn off self-view: Do you really need to see your own face all day long? Probably not. In Zoom, you’ll need to do this manually in every meeting by clicking on the three dots over your own video, then select “hide self view.” Google Meet also allows you to minimize your self-view. Unfortunately, as we write, this is not possible in Microsoft Teams, but it is a feature the development team says it plans to include in a future update.
  4. Consider whether the conversation needs to be a video call: Video calls are a great tool for WFA, but not every interaction needs to take place “face to face” over video. If it can be accomplished with video off or via email, text or a voice call, do so when appropriate. That said, don’t be tempted to eliminate video conferencing as seeing each others’ faces helps support a positive culture and build trust.
  5. Consider “No Meeting” Days: People need large, uninterrupted blocks of time to focus, especially when performing creative Work such as coding, writing, planning and designing. Even just half a day once a week can have an impact. People can recharge, accomplish great things, and come back to the video meetings you need to hold, free of Zoom Gloom.

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Topics: Technology

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