Virtual meetings using Zoom or other video conferencing platforms made it possible for countless workers to move to remote work during the pandemic — and have allowed many of us to continue working remotely today. From company-wide conferences to intimate social gatherings, these virtual platforms have been a game changer, and meeting via screen instead of in person has some real benefits (like the ability to wear comfy pants and fuzzy slippers).
However, there’s also a downside to how easy it is to schedule — and attend — all these virtual meetings. With no need to account for a commute and no meeting rooms to book, some of us have found ourselves in back-to-back video calls, day after day, and that can take a real toll. In fact, that toll even has a name: Zoom fatigue.
It may sound funny, but it’s a real problem that can be detrimental to workers’ health and productivity. Fortunately, teams can combat Zoom fatigue with several helpful strategies. Before you can battle it, though, let’s uncover what Zoom fatigue is and what causes it.
What is zoom fatigue?
Simply put, Zoom fatigue is a high level of exhaustion from video-conferencing platforms due to the differences between video and in-person meetings. If you recall the way you felt after your first few video meetings in 2020 — when working with your colleagues virtually was new and perhaps exciting —versus the way you may feel now after a day filled with meetings on screen, you can probably think of a few symptoms you’ve encountered. For instance, you may have experienced higher stress levels, greater irritation, avoidance of social situations after video conferences, and overall tiredness.
There’s even a way to measure these symptoms: The Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (or ZEF Scale), which includes 15 questions about general, physical, social, emotional, and motivational fatigue.
Close-up eye contact
Picture a traditional, in-person meeting, where you sit around a table at a reasonable distance. Most likely, participants look at the person speaking, down at papers, and around the room. In typical in-person meetings, you face only a portion of the group, so other than passing glances, you probably don’t spend much time staring into various colleagues’ eyes at the same time.
Now, compare that visual with what you see when you log into a Zoom meeting, where everyone is close up on your screen and faces you directly. Unless all participants set their screens to speaker view, everyone looks at all the meeting attendees all the time — which is not something we experience in daily life. Faces can also appear too large, or too close, which can feel like an encroachment on your personal space.
Being stared at while speaking has been shown to cause physiological arousal, so when you pair that experience with unnaturally large and close-up faces, your stress levels can spike, which can lead to major fatigue after the call ends.
Anyone else sick of seeing so much of themselves? Most of us rarely see ourselves in real time in a setting like a meeting, but because most video conferencing platforms default to showing every attendee — you included — back-to-back virtual meetings can make it feel like you’re staring at yourself in a mirror for hours a day. And according to studies on mirrors, reflections, and self-esteem, viewing yourself for an extended period of time can be difficult for even the most secure person due to the natural increase in self-evaluation. After all, if you stare at anything long enough — especially your face in situations in which you’re not used to observing it — you’re sure to find flaws, right? We’ve all had thoughts like, “Oh dear, is that really how I look when I’m actively listening?”
Even if you aren’t exactly a walker-and-talker, chances are that your natural movement is more limited when on a video conference than it would be if you were on a phone call, where you could at least stand and stretch. Even in an in-person meeting, you may have the ability to get up and move around a bit. But when you’re trying to remain in a video frame (you know, because everyone can see you) and maybe trying to hold yourself in a flattering position while there, you reduce your natural movement. Cutting out natural movement call after call can be a real drag since research shows movement can benefit cognitive performance.
Nonverbal communication challenges
When we interact in person, we use all kinds of nonverbal cues without even thinking about it. We nod, gesture with our hands, make faces, and more. But when you communicate via a screen, those natural cues become more difficult to decipher or even execute properly. It can be impossible to tell who’s actually looking at you (vs. another participant) at any given time, not to mention the fact that it might feel unnatural to make those same gestures within the camera’s view. So while off-camera conversation may not take it out of us, the thought and effort we often put into on-camera discussion can feel draining.
In addition to these issues named in the study, other differences between traditional meetings and virtual ones, like potential lags due to tech issues or the fact that you may feel like you always need to be available since meetings don’t require you to be in the office, can lead to Zoom fatigue. Additionally, you may find it harder to remain focused on a meeting in your home office, especially if you have children, pets, or partners distracting you. But even if you have no living, breathing distractions, let’s be real — your email is always right there, waiting to be checked. You could do a quick scroll through Instagram and nobody would be the wiser. You could even multitask on an entirely unrelated project during some or all of the meeting. Concentrating on the meeting in front of you becomes harder and harder when you feel yourself being pulled away by other responsibilities and distractions — and that just adds to Zoom fatigue.
How to combat zoom fatigue
Video conferencing isn’t going away any time soon — and even given the concerns above, many of us wouldn’t want it to. With that said, it’s important to recognize Zoom fatigue and consider ways to prevent it. Here are some helpful strategies to reduce the negative effects of video conferencing.
Turn off your camera periodically
Talk to your colleagues about video expectations, and make it clear that you can be an engaged listener without the video component during meetings that don’t rely on a screen share or presentation. Switching to audio only makes it easier for you to move around your office while you listen, or at least look away from the camera and screen in order to give your eyes a break.
If you must remain on video, consider changing your settings to hide your self-view; that way, you at least won’t spend time and energy looking at (and judging) your own face.
Talk to colleagues about their backgrounds and camera use
Having your coworkers turn off their cameras when not speaking can help, but if they all want to remain on camera, see if everyone can use a blurred or plain background to reduce stimuli. If these options don’t work for a specific meeting, you can always reduce the size of the meeting window on your own screen to keep faces from appearing quite so large.
Consider an external camera and wireless keyboard
This will allow you to set your camera farther from the screen and work in a more comfortable space, rather than feel like you’re up close and a little too personal with everyone joining the meeting. This may also make it easier for you to switch to a standing desk or standing desk converter throughout the day.
Close distracting tabs and avoid multitasking
It can be challenging to close out of everything, we know, but it’s harder to resist the siren song of a fascinating article or a new email when you’re stuck in a meeting. Still, if you were there in person, you’d probably never consider multitasking. Instead, you’d be an engaged participant who maybe makes an occasional doodle. By removing those distractions before you sign on for your meeting, you’ll reduce the amount of effort it takes to remain focused.
Cut back on meetings
It’s a pretty basic approach, but can you schedule fewer meetings, or shorten the ones that must take place? Try blocking off time on your calendar, just the way you would if you weren’t able to attend a meeting physically. We may joke about how “this meeting could’ve been an email,” but sometimes, it could! If you and your colleagues realize you’re experiencing Zoom fatigue, it’s certainly worth having a conversation about whether you can reduce your video conferencing load by scheduling fewer meetings, switching some to audio-only, or — seriously — sending an email.
Zoom fatigue is real, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent problem. Identify whether you’re experiencing it, then take a look at the ways you can reduce the effects of regular video conferences. A few small changes could make your home office meeting experience loads better — and you still get to wear the comfy pants!