Ask Answers: What Is Zoom Fatigue?

By Kate Bove
Zoom Classroom 1
Photo Courtesy: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Updated: 4 June 2020 | Right now, we are seeing so much tragedy in the news. Police brutality continues in the United States as officers murder Black Americans, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others. Journalists and protesters exercising their rights — to report the truth and to support the Black Lives Matter movement, respectively — are being met with government-sanctioned violence. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives and disproportionately hurt our most vulnerable populations. Needless to say, it’s important to find ways to cope and prioritize your mental health. Although it feels essential to connect with family, friends and peers — to organize around causes, to share information, or simply to stay in touch and check in — video conferencing is undoubtedly another source of the mental and emotional drain many are feeling. While this article aims to answer the question “What Is Zoom Fatigue?”, we understand that’s not the biggest concern on anyone’s mind right now. Hopefully, though, learning about video conferencing’s impact on mental health helps you cope a little bit better.

Remember that Skype ringtone that would chime delightfully through your laptop’s speakers when you tried to get someone on the line? A decade ago, that video chat service seemed destined to become the Google of its domain — so synonymous with video conferencing that it became a verb when you wanted to "skype" someone. However, in the last few years the video conferencing competition has become fierce. While Skype seemed to have a horse in both races — professional workplace chat services and social video chatting — other services emerged, carving out specific niches. For example, FaceTime became the go-to social video chat service. It’s more immediate, easy to use, right in the palm of your hand and, best of all, designed to be quick — like a phone call.

Meanwhile, Zoom, which launched its software in 2013, aimed to become the platform for teleconferencing, telecommuting and distance learning. In the wake of increased shelter-in-place directives and work-from-home initiatives sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom became a way to connect socially too. If you, your friends and your family are all using a platform for telecommuting, why not just use that same platform to virtually socialize as well? But even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Zoom’s ease-of-use and reliability resulted in a $1 billion valuation in 2017. Recently, the "unicorn" company joined the NASDAQ-100 stock index on April 30, 2020. Perhaps more impressively, Zoom has become the stand-in, brand-name verb that’s synonymous with video conferencing.

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Why Is Video Chatting So Draining?

While platforms like Zoom, which offers a free version of its communication service, have proven to be invaluable resources during the novel coronavirus pandemic, there are some downsides to using this type of technology. Of course, the upsides — being able to work and learn remotely and safely from home; hosting events, like happy hours, birthday parties, religious gatherings and even weddings; and connecting with friends and family face-to-face — outweigh any negatives. Still, it’s becoming more and more apparent that video chatting, even for just a few minutes a day nearly every day of the week, is exhausting.

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Now more than ever, we’re all craving connection — simple human interaction and socialization. It seems wrong to dread an upcoming Zoom chat with buddies who live across the country, or thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic live just across town, but after a long week of telecommuting, a certain lethargy sets in nonetheless. Dubbed "Zoom fatigue," the tiredness that accompanies the end of the day feels like both physical and emotional exhaustion — even if you were just attending regular work meetings throughout the day. So, what gives?

According to Canadian publication CBC, chatting virtually can feel more tiring than an in-person catch-up. "Users can feel like they’re performing for the camera more than they would while meeting colleagues in person — especially when software continuously displays to a user their own live image, adding an element of self-awareness." When you consider the Hollywood Squares feeling of it all — a.k.a. Zoom’s "gallery mode," which allows you to see all the chat’s participants — it makes sense.

You never know when someone is looking at you, so looking away, doodling in a notebook, scratching your nose — none of it feels like proper etiquette. In person, conversation has lulls, flows and ebbs that allow participants to focus their attention on whomever is speaking or on the less static environment around them. With Zoom, it’s all about staring into the camera, desperately trying to make eye contact with every set of pixelated eyes. For folks with social anxiety, trying to be heard or interject over a Zoom call can feel even more daunting due to that looming, silent audience.

To make matters more trying, sometimes staying engaged takes so much energy that a Zoom call becomes two primary speakers going back and forth while everyone else listens on, microphones muted. We’ve all been there, nodding along and wondering if anyone can tell we’re nodding at all. Of course, there’s more to looking like an active listener via a video chat than eye contact and facing forward. Janine Hubbard, a psychologist at St. John’s, told CBC in an interview about another factor that leads to fatigue. "We're doing exaggerated non-verbal cues, as opposed to much more naturalistic, relaxed ones that we would normally do."

We can’t really read small gestures or body language over a video chat. If someone is fidgeting nervously, that’s less apparent. You also can’t give the verbal and nonverbal cues you normally would if you want to interject. Think of it like acting on stage — where even the last row of the audience needs to see your emotion — versus acting for a film, when you have all the close-ups you need and distance doesn’t matter as much. According to the Wall Street Journal’s findings, even that "millisecond delay" between action and reaction can impact video chatters.

How Can We Combat Zoom Fatigue?

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of Zoom is all that multitasking. In fact, you might not even perceive it as such, but it’s clear that video conferencing is a balancing act. Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, explained to National Geographic why the multitasking factor, or as psychologists call it, "continuous partial attention," plays such a huge role in Zoom fatigue. "We’re engaged in numerous activities but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular," Franklin notes.

Zoom Desk
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So, how can we combat this fatigue? First, it’s important to limit the number of meetings — and their running time — on a daily basis. Keep that in mind when chatting socially with friends for happy hour or over the weekend. Just because someone is feeling too drained to video chat, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to virtually hang.

Another easy tactic? Try shifting your calls to audio-only. If you’re on Zoom, agree to keep the video off unless visuals are absolutely necessary, or at least ensure your workplace (or friend group) is okay with particularly fatigued individuals opting out of the video portion once in a while. Of course, if none of these Zoom-related tips help sharpen your focus or reduce your fatigue, there’s nothing wrong with picking up the phone and calling your coworkers, friends and family the old fashioned way on occasion.