What Science Tells Us About Zoom Fatigue

Group of multiracial and multigender individuals on a Zoom call

Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Zoom exhaustion is prevalent due to the COVID-10 pandemic and the global shift to virtual communication settings.
  • There are both physical and mental contributions to this exhaustion, and it's important to take steps to mitigate these effects.

Many of us, especially the younger generations, have been plugged into newer technology for social connection, work, and education for years. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the wide-spread stay-at-home orders that came with it, however, there has been a huge shift to virtual connectivity among people of all ages, with Zoom being one of the biggest beneficiaries.

While there are a number of advantages to videoconferencing technology like Zoom, there is also a heavy toll that it can take on an individual, leading to what is now commonly known as Zoom fatigue. According to researcher and educator Jeremy Bailenson, PhD, there are a number of reasons that this type of communication has many people exhausted by their daily Zoom calls.

What Is Zoom Fatigue?

Zoom fatigue can feel very similar to traditional burnout—a common occurrence in "normal' times—but is a specific type of exhaustion that occurs in response to the increased need for videoconferencing throughout the day for people working remotely.

While some of this strain is surely a general response to what has become a global mental health crisis, Bailenson discusses four primary contributors to the exhaustion that is often felt after Zoom calls, including forced closeness and simulation of eye contact, exaggerated gestures, limited mobility, and self-focus.

Forced Closeness and Simulation of Eye Contact

In most relationships, behavior such as standing close to someone else, making direct eye contact, and then sustaining said eye contact is reserved for particular people and intimate situations. However, engaging in Zoom meetings force participants to do the exact opposite, feigning sustained contact with colleagues and sometimes even strangers.

Bailenson's study included utilizing "speaker" view, where the speaker's face is smaller and on top of the large image of the other users. Bailenson measured the distance between himself and others he was speaking with, referencing Edward T. Hall's definition of intimacy to measure.

The size of the speaker’s face on the screen really just simulates the direct eye contact, which is exhausting for the brain to keep up with. Bailenson says, “My best advice is to shrink the Zoom screen. Instead of having it take up the entire screen, minimize it to about one third of the screen. Then, the faces are no longer huge when they stare at you.”

Exaggerated Gestures

Nonverbal communication is a very important aspect of relationships and connection, but over Zoom we are forced to not only send and receive an abundance of these nonverbal cues, but decipher which we are actually supposed to respond to.

In a face-to-face conversation, you can deduce what a side glance or a smirk means. Over a video conference, oftentimes an individual's nonverbal gestures have nothing to do with the conversation at hand, or the gestures do not match up.

"One of the things I worry about is that the medium is changing the way we communicate. Think about the exaggerated nods and the holding one's thumb up. How long until those become tools we use in everyday, face-to-face interaction?" Bailenson says.

Being Stuck in One Place

In order to be seen, Zoom participants are forced to remain in one spot for the duration of their meeting. Under normal circumstances, there is more freedom of movement—you may be allowed to pace, walk down the hall, go to the bathroom without excusing yourself, spin around in your chair—several things we likely took for granted prior to these virtual conferences.

Now, because there is an expectation of proper Zoom etiquette, individuals who have their cameras on are expected to be effectively statuesque for the duration of a meeting.

"An All Day Mirror"

Another factor that can result in exhaustion is the idea of being able to see yourself for the duration of the day, potentially preoccupying or worrying yourself with your appearance. While there is presently no data to discuss the effects of looking at yourself all day on Zoom, there have been previous studies that examined the effect that self-focus has on an individual. In one study, for example, women responded negatively to being shown photos and videos of themselves.

Katie Moffitt, MSW

If you are not obligated to be on camera, then don't! You can most certainly be an active participant even if your video is off.

— Katie Moffitt, MSW

How to Combat Zoom Fatigue

Katie Moffitt, MSW, gives some suggestions for those who are obligated to deal with longstanding Zoom meetings:

If You are a Participant 

Engage on your own terms. If you are not obligated to be on camera, then don't! You can most certainly be an active participant even if your video is off.

If you have control over your schedule, exercise it. If possible, set your weekly calendar up in a way that feels good to you. Limit the number of meetings and build-in breaks between your meetings. Don't overload your days if you don't have to!

Take time away from your desk. Working from home has removed these breaks we would normally consider a part of work. Eat, walk, listen to something relaxing or upbeat. The main thing is to step away from the computer as it relates to work. If we were working from our offices we would get up to get water, eat in the “lunchroom”, walk down the hall to ask a question, or chat with a coworker.

If You're Facilitating a Zoom Space

  • Build in breaks for your participants, and use various methods to check-in with folks and ask the group if they need a break.
  • End early if you can.
  • Utilize breakout rooms (this will help both participants and the facilitator).
  • Acknowledge your own level of fatigue.

Most people are struggling in one way or another, so expressing where you are and letting folks know that you are all on the same page can go a long way to easing some of that fatigue, Moffitt says.

What This Means For You

We are living in unprecedented times, and we are all learning how to navigate this new way of living. If you find yourself feeling burnout from the extra screen time, give yourself permission to take breaks and create boundaries.

Ultimately, taking these steps will not only help you feel better, but may also make you more productive in the long run.

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