The need to work and study remotely that came with COVID-19 also brought us the widespread use of videoconferencing. On one hand, using video calls allows people to feel more connected bu, on the other hand, the constant use of these forms of communication can lead to exhaustion. This phenomenon was dubbed “zoom fatigue.” What causes it and how to avoid it?
Classes, group work, work meetings, and even leisure social activities now take place in our phones and computers, using videoconference. Many of us now spend a great part, or even the major part, of their days in meetings hosted through platforms that facilitate videoconferencing, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, among others. This experience may bring unexpected effects: exhaustion and extreme fatigue by the end of the day. If we are not spending more time in meetings or classes than before, what justifies that the “simple” fact that we don’t hold these meetings in person may have such a major impact on our well-being?
“Zoom fatigue” gained this name because of the popularity of Zoom, a videoconferencing platform, but it describes the exhaustion many people feel after a day full of “video-activities,” whichever platform they are using, including the specific ones that teachers and students use. This recent phenomenon has not been thoroughly studied but, given its frequency, several specialists have already suggested possible causes and possible strategies to reduce this type of fatigue.
Jeremy Bailenson, head of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, and his colleagues are conducting one of the first studies on zoom fatigue. In a Wall Street Journal, Bailenson explains that zoom fatigue may result from the disruption of the ways of communicating that humans developed to facilitate their survival. Specifically, “We’ve evolved to get meaning out of a flick of the eye … [and] Zoom smothers you with cues, and they aren’t synchronous. It takes a physiological toll,” says Bailenson. This asynchronous cues that do not allow us to infer meaning overload our cognitive system, resulting in exhaustion. In the last 20 years, Bailenson has studied people who communicate virtually and the knowledge he has acquired leads him to believe that platforms like Zoom cause an overload of non-verbal cues. For instance, long gazes and face closeness that used to only occur in close relationships are now a constant in all video calls. In a previous study, conducted at Stanford, Bailenson used virtual classrooms to study the consequences of this fixed and constant stare. For some students, the teacher’s gaze moved from student to student, as it happens in real classrooms. For other students, the teacher’s gaze was constant and fixated on them during the whole class. The students who felt more observed by the teacher were more productive than the others, but reported feeling exhausted and uncomfortable after the class. As in this experiment, using videoconference platforms to teach might have the advantage of increasing attention but might also bring the costs of fast exhaustion and installed fatigue.
In a Los Angeles Times article, Daniel Willingham, professor professor of psychology at University of Virginia, also raised similar concerns about the use of videoconference specifically for classes. Willigham mentions the disruption of visual contact, an important signal in conversation, “because internet lag disrupts their timing and because computer equipment makes eye contact difficult.” Even more important than visual contact is the use of gestures that help students to learn but are absent in videoconferencing. For instance, instructors may use gestures, such as pointing, when they want to demonstrate or call attention something. The fact that students and instructors do not share the same physical space during a visual class makes this extremely difficult. Willingham suggests some workarounds (for example, an instructor can say”look at the blue section of the graph” instead of pointing at it), but warns that the costs of these turnarounds might “accumulate over hours of video expounding difficult academic content.”
H Locke, the director of User Experience (UX) at the marketing agency Ogilvy, wrote an article exploring the impact of the constant use of Zoom and similar platforms on people, meetings, and research. Locke suggests that the use of video calls creates a psychological experience completely different from the one we were used to having, which will impact emotions and behavior. Some of the reasons for these differences have to do with the unique characteristics of videoconferencing:
- Limitation of social interaction. On one hand, these platforms facilitate the interaction with colleagues and students and even family members and friends, on the other, they change the quality of these interactions. For example, the spontaneity of interactions is lost, now that they are scheduled and limited.
- Reduction of the stimulus we process in an interaction. Online interactions limit the processing of body language and general appearance (we were not used to seeing people only from the waist up). Even the processing of facial expressions is limited, as also is the processing of the social cues that we unconsciously use (for example, the distance people choose to keep when they sit or how they change their body posture during a conversation). Regarding classes, it becomes almost impossible to understand whether students are paying attention or evaluate whether a student expresses confusion. Of course, if we multiply the number of participants, as in a class of 20 or more students, these tasks become even more complicated.
- Elimination of aspects of communication that facilitate a conversation. It becomes difficult to identify our turn to speak or if someone finished their intervention. For example, a student who has a question can always virtually “raise their hand” but there is a high probability the teacher won’t immediately see it.
- Limitation of contextual information. The access to information about the location and participants’ presentation is lost. It becomes difficult to realize whether a student is tired, relaxed, confused, or happy. Our ability to present different versions of ourselves in different contexts is also impaired—our video calls are usually all made from the same room, sitting at the same desk.
- Limitation of attention. The distractions we have in our household are also present in our videoconferences—our pets, washers and dryers, or our family members. When one is not speaking, it is easy to “disconnect” one’s attention. Of course, this limitation can have very negative consequences for learning.
- Possibility of seeing ourselves constantly. Who has never gone to a restaurant with a large mirror and found themselves looking at their reflection instead of paying attention to the conversation? This possibility of constant self-analysis may result in anxiety.
- Emotional expression is more difficult. Or, as we are so used to have others infer our emotions through our facial expressions, we may think that we expressed a certain emotion and the person on the other side of the screen ignored it.
- Elimination of conversation before and after the call. Students cannot stay after class to ask questions and cannot easily chat with each other after class.
The Viewpoint Research Team also wrote a post explaining the causes of Zoom fatigue. They suggest that Bandura’s self-regulation theory (1991) may provide a plausible explanation. According to this theory, we tend to monitor, regulate, and adjust our behaviors to reach certain goals. During videoconferencing, besides the difficulty reading the cues others provide, as mentioned by Locke, we also constantly exposed to a video of ourselves, which might make us want to regulate behaviors (or images) that are not relevant for the meeting. This extra effort to regulate behaviors in addition to the fact that one feels like is being constantly observed may contribute to the increase of fatigue.
Manyu Jiang, from BBC, interviewed Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at Insead studying learning and development at the workplace, and Marissa Shuffler, a professor at Clemson University studying well-being and efficiency in work groups. Jiang obtained responses similar to the ones we already reviewed. Petriglieri reinforced the fact that differences in communication patterns may lead to exhaustion and gave the example of the silences that are normal and even facilitate a face-to-face conversation becoming a source of anxiety in a videoconference. He also mentioned how the contextual limitations can cause some weirdness—using videoconferencing for all of our interactions is pretty much like going to a bar and running into teachers, students, colleagues, family, and friends, which would be odd and possibly a cause of anxiety.
Locke, o Viewpoint Research Team, Petriglieri, and Shuffler present some suggestions to minimize Zoom fatigue and that can be used in online classes:
- If you choose long sessions, hold fewer sessions.
- As we had suggested elsewhere, shorter sessions help to keep the focus of attention.
- Minimize screen distractions. For example, turn off email notifications or other messages.
- Eliminate the window with your own video to avoid focusing the attention onto yourself and increasing the anxiety (for example, cover the window with a post-it).
- Using shared files with clear notes may be an alternative to some calls.