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What is ‘Zoom fatigue’ and ways to overcome it

Contributor Saniyah Qureshi

Given that this entire school year has shifted online, Zoom has now become the primary application not only used for synchronous classes but also for general video chats among employees or family/friends. Especially being that the term “zooming” is synonymous with videoconferencing. All things considered, it comes as no surprise that the number of Zoom calls has skyrocketed now more than ever to meet social distancing protocols.

In light of frequent video conferencing, we’ve all heard something along the lines of taking breaks throughout the day. When on-call, we may forget to take breaks due to being so caught up in events such as attending a virtual daylong conference or desperately finish up on a group assignment. However, from looking at our screens for long periods, we put our eyes at risk and most certainly tire ourselves out.

Professor of communication at Stanford University, Jeremy Bailenson investigated the psychological consequences of using these platforms for long periods of time. Bailenson analyzed ‘Zoom fatigue’ through a psychological mindset with an aim to propose interface changes to reduce fatigue that many experience. He discovered four consequences of lengthy video calls that lead to ‘Zoom fatigue’ as well as their simple fixes.

1. Prolonged eye contact is exhaustive

Bailenson claims that the amount of eye contact we maintain during video chats is tiring. Classes that require students to have their cameras on have significantly increased the amount of eye contact considering everyone’s staring at everyone. After all, we’re not in the basic set-up where your eyes would be focussed on the professor at the front of the room and so, during a Zoom session, there are several things to look at.

Bailenson also noted that the size of other participants’ faces in calls is unnatural and too large. An individual's personal space is virtually violated as the close proximity of another’s face stimulates an experience you feel with those you're intimate with. According to Bailenson, from a psychological lens, this interaction causes one to be in a hyper-aroused state in which the brain thinks the scenario will later lead to either mating or conflict.

Bailenson suggests exiting Zoom’s full-screen mode which ultimately shrinks participants' face size. He also recommends using an external keyboard which will establish a comfortable space between you and the others on the call.

2. Watching yourself on-call is tiring

A morning glimpse of yourself in the mirror might be all you need to get through the day as you may notice workplaces aren’t crowded with mirrors for a reason. Interestingly enough, several studies show that you become more critical of yourself when looking at your own reflection. Bailenson claims, “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.” Most importantly, those with social anxiety tend to feel restless and would spend the majority of the call looking at their image. Bailenson compares zoom calls to public speaking experiences as he references, “when you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”

Bailenson advises platforms to change their settings and only let others see your video but in the meantime, he recommends using the “hide self-view” option that can be accessed by right-clicking on your image.

3. Video chats restrict our movement

Have you ever found yourself walking around your house while talking on the phone? Or even occasionally stretch during a long meeting or conference session? Well, during a video conference, we’re confined to what our camera's field of view captures. Bailenson sees this as a concern as he insists, “there’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively.”

An easy-fix to the narrow field of view would be to adjust an external camera or webcam that would allow you to have greater space. Even having video-off breaks during conference calls would give participants a brief nonverbal rest.

4. The cognitive load and inability to observe body language is higher and takes more energy

It’s no surprise we have to put more effort when sending or receiving signals due to the lack of face-to-face interaction. To communicate effectively such as, “if you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate,” Bailenson adds. Gestures have several different meanings which makes them even harder to interpret in a video context. As hard as it is to read cues, we also must be careful and remain fully engaged to avoid interrupting others.

A simple fix for this consequence is to use an “audio-only” break to give yourself some rest from being nonverbally active. You must also ensure you turn your body away from the screen, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

If you’re interested, check out the link below to participate in a Stanford research project where you’re able to see where you land on the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue (ZEF) Scale. This scale measures how much fatigue an individual is experiencing in the workplace from videoconferencing.



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