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There have been many novel and unexpected consequences associated with the 2020-2021 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One unintended outcome has been a workplace revolution that futurists, scholars, and business visionaries have been predicting for many years – the pervasive use of videoconferencing technology. For years people have predicted that once adopted and embraced by businesses, videoconferencing would transform the workplace by freeing people to work from home, thereby giving them greater work – life balance, more time at home, and freedom from the stress and time spent in physical commuting. For those ecologically minded workers and businesses, the videoconferencing revolution would leave them feeling especially good because videoconferencing results in the beneficial side effect of slowing global fossil fuel emissions. Studies have shown that this has actually happened in the last year. Futurists also predicted that such videoconferencing would transform and enhance how people around the world socialize and connect. Someday.
The coronavirus pandemic brought the future to the present in 2020. It transformed the world of work for millions of people and disrupted normal social interactions for an inherently and intensely social species- we human beings. At work, businesses quickly adopted Zoom as a videoconferencing platform. It was free and easy to use. It increased employee productivity. Soon millions of Zoom meetings were happening in workplaces and in academia. The term, “Zoom”, became synonymous with videoconferencing regardless of the platform used, whether it was Zoom, Teams or any of the many other videoconferencing brands.
But as videoconferencing became ubiquitous, something about being on such calls and meetings all day long seemed to be especially fatiguing. So said many people. The term Zoom Fatigue caught on to describe this phenomenon. Recently, Stanford University researchers published the first peer reviewed
What causes Zoom Fatigue – The neurophysiological explanation
Now for those not interested in the neurophysiology for Zoom Fatigue, you may skip to the next paragraph. In short, brain researchers have come to believe that excess videoconferencing has disruptive effects on the dopaminergic neural pathways in our brains. These are the pathways that are consciously or unconsciously activated when we make assessments about maximizing rewards and minimizing risks and efforts. Their activation provides comfort and awareness- the opposite of fatigue. Also, researchers believe that oxytocin, a hormone involved in humans’ social bonding, is produced in lessor amounts in videoconferencing versus in-person contacts. So, in terms of brain physiology, a steady diet of videoconferencing seems to negatively affect the neural pathways in our brains that provide a sense of comfort and alertness while also decreasing a hormone that helps us to bond with others. Not a beneficial combination in terms of our sense of wellbeing.
What causes Zoom Fatigue – for the rest of us – and how to diminish it
Researchers at Stanford studied exactly how Zoom Fatigue works. Here is what they found and suggest as ways to reduce the stress.
Excessive eye contact is unpleasant.
Remember the pre-pandemic days when you rode in crowded elevators? Many strangers. No social distancing. Feelings of self-consciousness. Lots of faces and eyes very close to you. People invading your personal space for a few seconds or a few minutes while you were waiting for the doors to open so you could get out. Uncomfortable, right? Remember how passengers looked at their shoes, the elevator’s ceiling, or looked into their bags for some phantom object? Really they were doing anything to avoid uncomfortable direct eye contact with others in that cramped space. (That, by the way, was a small taste of social phobia– a common type of anxiety condition experienced by millions of people.) The reason for your discomfort in the elevator is because humans instinctively view close up eye contact with a stranger as a potential safety threat. They instinctively avoid it and when they can’t they become uncomfortable and aroused, not relaxed.
This same process plays out on Zoom calls. Instead of in-person meetings where people look at the speaker, or look down to take notes, or glance at the person across the table or room opposite them, in Zoom calls EVERYONE seems to be looking at EVERYONE, ALL the time. One is confronted with a wall of faces. Faces that may appear large and too close to our face for comfort. Our brains interpret this as a threatening situation, creating a hyper-aroused state of personal distress. Do this all day, and one can feel fatigued just from the video experience.
How to diminish it? Reduce the size of the window compared to your monitor. When possible, adjust your personal space so as to not be too close to the wall of faces and eyes. Take advantage of the time on a call when a document or presentation is being shared and focus on what’s being presented instead of the faces on the call.
Seeing oneself constantly during videoconferencing calls is tiring and stressful.
Seeing oneself on video leads to self-evaluation and critiquing. Zoom calls are a sort of technological mirror and not a good one. It’s like working in a mirror – and a weird sort of mirror at that. This mirror is also filled with the faces and eyes of workplace peers, subordinates, superiors, strangers – or in academic settings, other students. Constantly looking at images of ourselves almost invariably leads us to self-criticism, stress, and fatigue. This very human quality of focusing on and fretting about our own appearance is also detrimental to the emotionally healthy mindfulness practice of focusing on the moment and the one task at hand.
How to diminish it? Take a short, periodic break and turn off your camera or hide your picture for a few minutes.
Videoconferencing increases our sedentary work life.
As if we needed more impetus to be even more sedentary, right? With all the negative physical and mental health consequences of a lack of activity. A day of video meetings means one is not walking to and from a conference room or classroom. It means that one is not on an audio call where one can stand up, or even pace about. This is because the field of view of the omnipresent camera is like a net- one that traps you in a restricted space. Not good.
How to diminish it? Again, turn your camera off periodically. Or position your camera to allow you to still be visible but to be able to stand up, stretch and pace a bit-just like you did in the pre-pandemic days when deep into a lengthy in-person meeting.
People are not built for the constant cognitive overload required in videoconferences.
In person conversations have been the familiar, comfortable, natural type of communication for humans for millennia. In face-to-face interactions much information is conveyed non-verbally. Over the ages, people have become skilled at detecting and interpreting non-verbal communication. Each of us consciously or subconsciously and quite naturally observes and assigns meanings to the other party’s gestures, motions, and facial cues. This important process comes naturally to people (well, I might say to most people) and it helps us communicate and understand one another, creating bonds and relationships. But in videoconferencing, we have taken the simple and easy and made it hard. Gestures are harder to interpret. Glances may be confusing. Signs of agreement or disagreement are not as clear. Exaggerated actions may be needed to communicate in the Zoom world, and nuanced subtleties may be easily lost or misunderstood. The bottom line is that we have to work harder, concentrate more, and expend excessive mental energy and effort to understand. This is cognitive overloading and creates fatigue when videoconferencing dominates the workday.
How to diminish it? Once again, turn off your camera and give yourself a break from this challenge. Take periodic breaks from all this in-meeting mental overload. It will help you refresh and relax for a few moments. If possible, avoid back-to-back-to-back videoconferences.
Suggestions for Managers
If you are a people manager or business leader, you can help relieve all this fatigue. And I don’t mean by just having fewer meetings, but, hey, who would complain about fewer meetings? Here’s how you can help.
Understand that mental fatigue from constant videoconferencing is real. It is part of the stress-inducing daily landscape of the workplace for many of your employees. It’s likely to continue and may even get worse as videoconferencing becomes the norm for business meetings. It’s unlikely the clock will be turned back to the pre-videoconferencing age. This new source of stress reduces your employees’ productivity and over the long term it is detrimental to their physical and emotional health. Its degree of impact on those millions of working people who are already challenged by existing mental conditions or excessive stress in other areas of their life is not yet understood.
Be aware of the dynamics of how videoconferencing creates this burden of mental fatigue. Teach your employees about it. Support practices in your organizations’ calls and meetings that can manage the stress of videoconferencing and reduce it. Your employees will thank you.
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue
Jeremy N. Bailenson, PhD.
Technology, Mind and Behavior Vol 2 Issue 1
A Neurological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue
Jena Lee, MD
Nov 17, 2020