10 Tips to Prevent Zoom Fatigue

Why video conference calls are exhausting and what you can do about it.

Posted Nov 14, 2020

Source: Pixabay

The pandemic has led to a related epidemic of “Zoom fatigue” and screen fatigue, especially for people working from home and students participating in online classes. At the end of 2019, 10 million people used Zoom. In April 2020, the number of Zoom users had skyrocketed to 300 million.

Why are virtual video conference meetings so mentally exhausting, and how can people proactively prevent and reduce Zoom fatigue? 

Several factors are at play, including technological limitations. Video conferences lack the capacity for “synchronous” communication. Sound and video feed delays leave gaps that can be misread. The natural flow of conversation can be choppy from technological issues like headset problems, Internet connectivity issues or disruptions, frozen screens, or the distortion of sound, including gaps or the speeding up or slowing down of conversation. Even when the Internet connection is fully working on both sides, there are inevitable micro-delays in both video and sound. This lack of “synchrony” causes an unconscious overworking of the brain to try to synchronize communication— your brain ends up working overtime to read the other person’s expressions and behavior. 

Video conferences make it very difficult for everyone to detect microexpressions, which can lead to miscommunication. A few seconds of silence can feel like an awkward pause that can be read into negatively. Video conferences also do not capture all of one's body language or its subtleties. These limitations leave a gap open for miscommunication and a lack of reassurance on both sides of the screen. Even a well-intentioned listener trying to detect microexpressions can end up having a longer or more intense eye stare, which can be read by the viewing person as hostility. 

Overlapping dialogue is nearly impossible in many video conference platforms, so the rhythm of conversation can feel unnatural. Spontaneous flow of information can be lost since people have to wait to speak their turn. This also makes the lighter aspects of conversation, such as humor and comic relief, more difficult. 

The increase in video conferencing occurs against the backdrop of a much more sedentary lifestyle. Meetings at physical locations, such as offices and schools, used to account for breaks so that people could move from room to room or take a restroom break. But online there is often less flexibility and fewer built-in breaks. There is a higher expectation that meetings start on time because everyone is expected to be available online, even though there are frequently minimal or no breaks between sessions.

All of this can lead to increased stress, a constant sense of needing to be "on" and "available," less physical exercise or movement, and less downtime or "transitional" space to relax the mind in between meetings.

Here are some tips to reduce Zoom fatigue.

  1. Schedule and protect non-screen breaks on your calendar. This is really important. Many companies are shifting to a long-term or permanent work-from-home model. Many of these work schedules were created as a rapid adapted response early in the pandemic and did not account for Zoom fatigue and are not sustainable.

    Schedules should account for at minimum 5 to 15 minute breaks in between back-to-back video conference meetings. Block specific break "protected" times on your calendar. Stretch, take a brief walk, or move around physically during this time. Avoid screens or checking your phone during these breaks.
  2. Switch to phone meetings over video conference when possible. 
  3. Prop up your screen in order to keep the camera directly at your eye level so that you will be looking straight ahead into the camera. 
  4. Make sure you are well-lit form the front. Put your lighting from the front in order to reduce shadows and prevent grainy video quality. This helps people be able to read your expressions.
  5. Frame your video so that your head and shoulders are in view instead of just your face. This prevents your face from looming large on the screen, which can be unconsciously read by others as hostile. This also helps you be able to convey more of your body language and gestures.
  6. Keep your background as minimal as possible for less distraction to both you and the other participants.
  7. Arrange your video conference program so that the speaker is front and center in order on your screen. This mimics more of an in-person conversation and minimizes distractions—when you’re looking at the speaker, it will align with your camera. 
  8. Close any other windows, including social media feeds, emails, and text messages. This helps prevent distractions and interruptions which can further exhaust your brain. Avoid multiple monitors when possible.
  9. Invest in a good headset so that you can better capture your voice and minimize ambient noise on both sides, so that you can better hear the speaker. 
  10. In your downtime, go offline. Engage in relaxing activities that don't require being on a screen such as meditation, listening to music, cooking, taking a walk, reading a book, taking a warm bath, drinking a cup of caffeine-free tea, or calling a friend.

On the Horizon

As the demand to meet virtually grows, several kinds of virtual reality (VR) platforms could help us adapt technology to our needs. These VR programs can project your avatar into spaces, such as virtual conference rooms. Prior to the pandemic, Facebook IQ conducted a study by Neurons, Inc., to examine how 60 participants responded to virtual reality versus having a conversation face-to-face in person and found that people, especially introverts, felt comfortable in virtual environment and were able to feel authentically connected to the other person. Many companies have since developed different VR social platforms, including Facebook Horizon, VIVE Sync, AltspaceVR, Spatial, and VRChat.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © 2020