Why Are We More Tired from Zooming Than Real-lifing?

The science behind Zoom-fatigue and what we can do about it.

Tameem Rahman
Jan 13 · 6 min read
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Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

Ironic, isn’t it? The “logical” assumption points to real-life meetings being more tiring. I mean, the physical labor… makes sense, right?

I’ve never been more exhausted sitting on my chair staring at a screen. (Only in 2020–21 will you see a sentence like that.)

But why? Good question. You’re about to find out.

Back-to-back video calls require more focus than a face-to-face chat. It has to do with our subconscious. We work harder to process non-verbal cues like the tone and pitch of the voice, facial expressions, and body language all through the screen.

See, our minds may be connected, but our bodies are not. Studies show that your words account for only 7% of the message you convey. The remaining 93% is non-verbal. 55% of communication is based on what people see and the other 38% is transmitted through tone of voice.

With zoom calls, we simply can’t have that. It’s mentally exhausting because you can’t naturally relax into a conversation like you’ve been used to your whole life.

Allow me to add to your stress and embarrassment: a 2014 study suggests that lagging during conferences negatively shape our views on people. A mere 1.2-second delay can make you perceive the responder as less friendly or focused.

And, of course, let us address the elephant in the room: insecurity. If we are on camera, we are forced into the direct line of sight of every attendee. Our own mini spotlight, yay. You know what comes with a spotlight? A stage. This stage burdens us with social pressure to perform and come off presentable. Like any actor, if we’re on this stage (call) for hours, we’re drained by the end.

It’s also very hard not to look at yourself when cameras are on, have you noticed that? That’s not just my narcissism speaking, right? People are more self-conscious and therefore distracted. Next thing you know, you’re focusing on the wrong things and have an unproductive Zoom session.

You’re tired of the Zoom anxiety, unnatural human interaction, and little take-away from meetings.

Hold on, we’re not done yet.

Our exhaustion comes from factors beyond just Zoom-fatigue. It’s also a matter of being “forced” into these exhausting calls.

Every time you see your bestie, Rachel, 3 panels down from you, you’re reminded of the people you miss and how you should be in the classroom/workplace together. That “ it shouldn’t be like this” moment when you see your colleagues trying to present a report while their family ignites WW3 in the background brings 90% frustration and 10% humour (ratio may vary between personalities and age). Frustration leads to burn-out.

The next issue needs some cool psychological background knowledge:

As an individual, we have many context-dependent social roles, relationships, and behaviors — according to the self-complexity theory.

In other words, we switch between mental frameworks in different social settings that dictate the way we act. When playing sports, we behave according to the “us-versus-them” framework, with competitiveness or hostility on the court. In the classroom/work, the “student/employee-authority” framework invites conformity and respect — et cetera.

The problem is, with online video calls acting as the single setting between every individual in your life, your interactions become dull and that framework line starts to blur. “We become more vulnerable to negative feelings,” says Professor (of Organisational Behaviour) Petriglieri at INSEAD. You start acting the same with everyone, no spice.

Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone, isn’t it weird? That’s what we’re doing now.

— Gianpiero Petriglieri

Put beautifully.

We are confined in our own space, physically isolated, with a computer window as our only source of human interaction with everyone and anyone.

✨We simply weren’t built for that.✨

— Science and Evolution

We’re frustrated by the miserable Zoom meetings that remind us daily that our only form of outside interaction is through a blue screen. We’re bored by the lifeless digital interactions with everyone in our lives.

Frustration and boredom over daily calls is a recipe for exhaustion and eventual burn-out.

For the first time, many of us are doing “get-togethers” on video calls, whether it’s an Among Us game, a virtual Christmas dinner, attending a high-school/university reunion and commencement or a birthday party. Yet still, something feels off.

Marissa Shuffler, professor at Clemson University, says it is a matter of desire. Are we clicking that Zoom link for a virtual happy hour with our colleagues because we want to or because we feel we ought to?

If it’s an obligation, is it really a break — as you call it? Make sure you really wanna be there; if you don’t, think of why and try to fix that. And it’s okay if you can’t, it’s not your fault. Larger calls can feel depersonalizing because your power as an individual is diminished. There will be less ‘Zoom fatigue’ from conversations where you’ve had a chance to be yourself.

So, What Are We Supposed to Do? Not Zoom at All !?

As a full-time student, freelancer, and entrepreneur, my day-to-day is 90% Zoom calls. Over time, I’ve acquired some handy habits to mitigate my Zoom-fatigue, maybe you can try them too.

I limit Zoom calls to only those that are necessary. I skip the socials and some classes when I’m weary and catch up later by myself when I’m energized — only do this if it works for you.

You might be wondering: this isn’t the best way to build a good rapport with colleagues/clients/classmates. You’re right, but you’re not skipping all of them and I think transparency is more valuable than a fake social.

I inform my buddies, colleagues, and profs that I’m not that type of guy and that they shouldn’t take it personally. I join here and there to remind them that I got love for them, which I do. Sometimes, we just have different ways of expressing our love and appreciation. I use the same rule for texting, lol. I’m more of a call or real-life kinda guy. Maybe it’s because of my fat fingers.

Another thing, and I’m serious: ask yourself, can it be done without a call? In some cases, it’s better to use shared files with notes to avoid information overload or miscommunication. No filler bullshit. No ums and uhs. I’ve found this to be a more efficient, less exhausting alternative for group projects.

  • Follow the 20–20–20 rule. Every 20 minutes take a 20-second break and look away at something 20-feet away (like outside your window). A 2013 study suggests that looking at far-away objects in-between work significantly reduced an 89.9% chance of computer vision syndrome, like headaches or eyestrains.
  • Crack a joke. Everyone loves a comedian.
  • Hide your camera view. We’re all subclinical narcissists; staring at yourself while conversing is unnatural and distracting. Do yourself a favor and use Zoom’s “hide myself” feature when having a conversation.
  • Switch up screen view. It’s distracting looking at so many beautiful faces at once. Just toggle speaker view and hide participants. This will help with the anxiety we talked about as well.
  • Keep yourself unmuted. If the call isn’t too populated and you have a calm background, do this for better interactions. When someone cracks a joke/asks a question, you can easily react to it. Many don’t bother because of the extra step of unmuting, this makes your call a lifeless void.

We’re all hustlers and we gotta tank through. We minimize damage where we can and where we can’t; we suck it up.

Now, you know the why behind our Zoom-fatigue, understand that it is normal and prioritize your mental health first. If that means missing a few Zooms, so be it. You won’t be able to do much fatigued anyway, so come back energized.

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Tameem Rahman

Written by

Toronto copywriter, student & entrepreneur on tech, business, and self-discovery.

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.

Tameem Rahman

Written by

Toronto copywriter, student & entrepreneur on tech, business, and self-discovery.

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.

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