Our company recently invited Stanford University Professor Jeremy Bailenson to talk about Zoom fatigue and some healthy ways to manage digital interactions during a live virtual event via Microsoft Teams. The said talk aimed to help employees better manage videoconferencing to boost wellness and productivity. In this blog post, I’m going to share some takeaways I noted during the session. 

Because of the global pandemic brought about by COVID-19, there is an increasing demand to use videoconferencing and collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, Google Meet, etc. These collaboration platforms are helping us get through this pandemic by allowing us to stay productive, however, we can’t deny the fact that too much exposure to these tools can lead to exhaustion or what we called “Zoom fatigue.”

Zoom fatigue
Image credits to Chris Montgomery

Four Main Causes of Zoom Fatigue:

1. Hyper Gaze (being exposed to the sea of faces all day long)

When you’re in a crowded elevator, people are forced to violate your personal space. In other words, because it’s a small space, you’d normally be uncomfortable with all the people in the elevator. In this instance, everybody looks down or they stare at their phone or they look at the ceiling or they avoid each other’s eye contact. You use eye contact to compensate for extra closeness. When there’s too much closeness that raises the bar of uncomfortable intimacy, so we look down as a way to buffer. When somebody gets too close to you it causes you to look away and this occurs even with virtual people.

In a typical conference room setting, not everybody’s looking or staring at the speaker even when somebody standing up and speaking but the strange thing about a video conference is that every single person in the meeting is staring at you even though you weren’t speaking just to make you uncomfortable. In Zoom, that’s what the default is even if you’re not speaking, you have in your field of view a sea of staring faces. You have a grid where you see people’s faces and they’re all looking at you.

2. All-Day Mirror (and the constant self-evaluation)

In a small group meeting (for instance a meeting composed of four people), it’s the default in Zoom and other platforms that they show what’s called the “self-view.” Imagine you’re in the office setting, while you’re working, while you were talking, while you’re doing every single thing in your day, there was a person and that person had a handheld mirror and he followed you around and no matter what you did, he stuck that mirror in your face making sure that you were looking at your own face. We would never tolerate this in the real world yet for some reason in all these online conferences the default setting is to have your own face staring at you. We know that this is taxing on the brain. According to various psychological studies conducted in the 1970s, constantly evaluating or judging ourselves can lead to stress and negative emotions. Also, when you’re forced to look at a mirror or real-time image that causes you to be fatigued.

3. Cognitive Load (so many cues to process)

The beautiful thing about face-to-face communication is it’s automatic. In other words, you don’t consciously think about it, it kind of rests in your back brain, it happens automatically, and you don’t spend mental energy on it because it happens without intention. Meanwhile, with deliberate communication, you have to think about something consciously and do it on purpose and these are things like putting that thumbs up to single “yes”, “I agree,” when you actually just want to signal to agree subtly and you want to nod your head exaggerating that head nod and keep it going for a while. We’ve all done these things and the challenge here is not that there’s anything wrong with doing that. The reason why processes get downgraded to automatic in the brain is that you don’t have to spend resources now suddenly, you’ve got to spend mental energy on something that before was efficient and now it’s not and this causes cognitive load. There’s also a study in 2019 that analyzed the voice of people who went on video conference compared to face-to-face set-up and the study showed that when you’re speaking at a video conference you speak 15% louder than you do face-to-face. Raising your voice is one of the largest signals of spending energy and being in a kind of conflict situation.

4. Trapped in the Camera-Box (we miss our mobility)

Etiquette dictates that when we’re on a virtual meeting, we must stay centered in the field of view of the camera. And because of that, it limits our mobility and this limitation actually causes us to be fatigued. 

In the end of the talk, Jeremy suggested that there is a need to conduct more studies on the psychology of video conferencing and virtual reality as it’s an area that we don’t know that much about. 

Have you experienced Zoom fatigue yet? Feel free to share your story in the comments section below.