When the pandemic began, internet meetings became an alternative that allowed us to virtually escape our physical confinement. It was the popular way to meet friends and family, and to move from working in an office to working from home.
Gradually, most users of the Zoom, Meet, Hangouts, Skype, Whatsapp, and other meeting platforms have found that they are more tired after virtual meetings than after face-to-face ones. “How can this be? If I’m at home and I haven’t had to move, why do I end up exhausted?” people often ask.
Fatigue caused by virtual meetings is a new mental health phenomenon, which is already being labeled. It’s most commonly called “Zoom burnout” or “Zoom fatigue,” and if you Google it, you’ll see plenty of results.
The phrase “Zoom fatigue” reached a major peak in the United States around May 1. On March 11 the WHO had declared a coronavirus pandemic, and on March 16 the White House had advised against meetings of more than 10 people. In just over a month, many people had already experienced the exhaustion of meetings by video call.
Psychotherapist Babita Spinelli explains that Zoom meetings are exhausting because they generate cognitive overload. “Unlike being in person, when we’re doing a Zoom with a group or individuals, we’re much more aware of what is happening with each person on the video call,” she told reporter Amy Marturana Winderl of The Healthy.
At a normal family get-together or work meeting, or at a party, we’d only be looking at the person who is speaking and maybe one or two other people at a time. When using a platform like Zoom, on the other hand, Spinelli says that our brain tries to pay attention to everyone at once, and that wears us down mentally.
On top of that, we have distractions unique to work-from-home situations, as Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy of Harvard Business Review point out. Pets, children, spouses, etc., may be in the room with us, or going in and out, or even “army crawling across the floor to grab their headphones off the dining table” without being seen on our video feed.
Another problem that makes our brain work harder in Zoom meetings is the fact that we don’t have all the elements to understand what each participant is communicating to us.
We may see only half a face, or suddenly someone looks at something we don’t see because it’s off-screen and we don’t know if it’s their pet, their child or their cell phone screen. We can’t see all their body language, and we don’t have the full context of what we do see. All that is extra work for our mind, which works overtime to try to fill in the information, according to Dr. Jessi Gold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, quoted in the “The Healthy.”
Nor does it help that we can see ourselves all the time. As Harvard Business Review’s article points out, “most of us are also staring at a small window of ourselves, making us hyper-aware of every wrinkle, expression, and how it might be interpreted.” If we’re self-conscious, this is particularly distracting and perhaps even distressing.
Here are some helpful suggestions summarized from the above-mentioned articles, with some of our own insights thrown in …
If you’re all “Zoomed out,” it’s OK to say so and look for alternatives if necessary. Everybody is under unusual stress right now, so people almost certainly will be understanding of your situation.
Uncertainty is stressful and makes it difficult to plan out how to use our time, much less to use the time well. Meetings will expand to fill the time available, so if that time is indeterminate, the meeting will drag on, resulting in frustration for everyone. Set a time limit for virtual meetings and stick to it.
In this way, virtual gatherings have a certain advantage over meetings in-person. It’s easier to type in the text chat, “Sorry, my time is up and I have to go, thanks and have a great day,” click “leave,” and simply disappear than it is to interrupt the speaker, excuse yourself, stand up, and walk out in front of everyone.
When you can, just video call one person at a time. Also, remember that not every call has to be a video call; a plain old phone call will often suffice, and give you more freedom to walk or relax. Another option is email, which tends to be more focused and to the point than a video chat.
Just because we can make video calls doesn’t mean we should do it constantly. The brain needs a chance to relax. Take time to pray. Read a good book. Close your eyes and listen to music that refreshes you. You need to recharge.
Switching from one activity to another can cost you as much as 40% of your productive time and negatively affects your memory. So no, you shouldn’t try to answer emails, browse the internet, and check Instagram while you’re in a Zoom meeting. You won’t be able to pay sufficient attention to the meeting, and you won’t do the other tasks well either.
If you can switch the video call to “speaker view” where you only see the person who’s talking at any given moment, this will help your brain to focus. Don’t stress yourself out by looking constantly at your own video feed; hide it if you can. If there’s one presenter at a time, see if everyone else can agree to turn off not only their microphones, but their video as well. All of this will give your brain fewer “inputs” to focus on at once.
The opportunities that the internet offers us to stay in touch and to work long-distance are a great blessing during times like these, but virtual communication comes with its own set of challenges. We need to remember that videoconferencing platforms are tools to be used only to the extent they are really helpful, and our virtual meetings require as much or more attention and focus as ordinary ones.
We may be working from home, but we still need breaks and time for ourselves. Virtual meetings with are better than total isolation, but they are limited in scope and unnatural for our brains; they are not a true substitute for being together in person, where all the natural channels of spoken and unspoken communication are available.