4 Practical Ways to Avoid Zoom Fatigue

New Stanford research shows Zoom fatigue is real. Here’s how to cope better

J.R. Flaherty
Mar 2 · 6 min read
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

I’ve been trying to figure out why, exactly, I’m so drained at the end of every Zoom meeting — and now we know. A new study last month from Stanford University in California has found it’s because a screen, unlike reality, doesn’t give you the chance to do anything else while you’re paying attention.

Suppose you’re a regular Zoom user or take many video calls in general through platforms like Slack and Google Hangouts. In that case, you might be familiar with what the researchers at Stanford University called “Zoom fatigue.”

It’s that sick feeling you get when your eyes get tired of staring at a computer for long periods, along with nagging physical symptoms like headaches or sore necks. If you weren’t affected by zoom fatigue before, the first time you experience it can be pretty jarring.

You could do hundreds of hours of video calls and perfectly healthy. But there’s a chance you’ll suffer from Zoom fatigue and feel like you have a real-world version of Eye of Sauron Syndrome.

What is Zoom?

It’s hardly news that the video-calling application Zoom has become a mainstay of the modern workplace now people are working from home.

Hundreds of millions of virtual conferences happen daily, as the social distancing protocols have kept people apart physically.

You know when students raise their hands to ask a question in class, and the professor has to call student A before student B because if they don’t leave soon, they will be late for an appointment? Zoom is like this, but it happens in a corporate setting. You have ten meetings a day with different coworkers in different time zones, remote employees, or clients.

It seems like the more you do something, the better you get at it. But when it comes to hunching over a desk and chatting with your team via video call all day, your tech skills don’t necessarily translate. That’s because Zoom video calls are different from in-person interactions ― and not just because of the physical distance between you.

It’s not in your head: Zoom fatigue is real.

Hundreds of hours of video calls over months can take their toll on your body and brain. If you’re a frequent video call user, you might know what I mean.

It’s that feeling that taking a call through video call app Zoom (and the like) is wearing on your body and brain to the point where you can feel it in your bones. And now, researchers are saying they know why it happens — and what can be done about it.

Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab(VHIL), examined how video conferencing platforms can impact us psychologically.

The new study, published Feb. 23, 2021 in the journal of Technology, Mind, and Behavior, is the first peer-reviewed article that studies “Zoom fatigue” from a psychological perspective.

The study provides empirical evidence that many have predicted online video conferencing fatigue. Zoom fatigue comes when you spend hours in a meeting at a distance rather than face-to-face — it does exist.

Many organizations — including schools, large companies, and government entities — have reached out to Stanford media researchers to understand how to create best practices for their particular video conferencing setup and develop institutional guidelines.

Here are four ways you minimize the impact of Zoom fatigue according to the latest research.

How to reduce the effects of zoom fatigue

1. Minimize the size of faces

Problem: Too much Eye Gaze at a Close Distance. On Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone’s face all the time — this is not normal in most meetings around a table. Faces appear larger, and closer than in real life on a screen.

Previous studies found anything closer than 60 cm apart is classified as “intimate,” the type of interpersonal distance patterns reserved for families and loved ones. It means one-on-one meetings conducted over Zoom, coworkers, and friends are operating in the interpersonal distance reserved for loved ones.

That makes them feel as if the person you are talking to is standing closer and staying in your personal, intimate space. On top of this fact, the Zoom call is often taking place in your home.

Solution: Professor Bailenson recommends taking Zoom out of the full-screen option, reducing the Zoom window’s size to minimize the face size. Another option is to use an external keyboard for a laptop to increase your space between your body and people’s grid on the screen.

2. Hide your self-view

Problem: An all-day mirror. If you walked around looking at yourself in a mirror, Bailensen suggests, you would drive yourself crazy. You are more critical of yourself when you look in a mirror. The sight of yourself on the screen brings up highly negative emotions over the day.

Solution: Bailenson recommends hiding the “self-view” button, which you can access by right-clicking your photo once you see your face is framed correctly in the video call.

3. Turn off your video periodically

Problem: Cognitive overload. The camera on your computer has a fixed field of view, meaning you are stuck in one smaller spot. This is not natural, and focusing on a limited space is a drain on your energy. It’s been found when people move around; they perform better cognitively.

Solution: Bailenson recommends a good ground rule to set for groups to give themselves a brief nonverbal rest: Turn the video off periodically during meetings. If you can, put an external camera farther away from the screen, you can then pace and draw in virtual meetings just like in real ones.

4. Turn your body away from the screen on audio-only breaks

Problem: Reduced mobility. We work a lot harder at understanding non-verbal cues when talking on video calls. We are missing natural hand gestures and emotions, which help with communication. When a person looks off-screen — are they looking at their child coming into the room, or are they signaling to the person next to them on the call?

Solution: Give yourself an “audio-only” break, especially in long stretches of meeting. “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen,” Bailenson said, “so that for a few minutes, you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

Conclusion

Although video calls may be the future of work, they can have adverse effects on our psyches. After a few hours of video calling, our mood deteriorates, and our brain responds as if we were in a social setting. Here’s what happens.

  • Eye gaze at a close distance
  • All-day mirror watching
  • Reduced mobility
  • Cognitive Overload

The more hours you spend on Zoom each day, the more likely you are to experience fatigue. The problem is real — and until video calls update their interfaces, there are small adjustments to the settings you can use. If you find yourself in long meetings, even minimizing the size of faces or having audio-only breaks can help.

Zoom was designed for group meetings with customers or colleagues when we can’t all be there in person, but the research suggests that this technology may be no substitute for the real thing when it comes to bridging a social gap.

In the meantime, video calls are here to stay, in one form or another. If done well, it can improve productivity and reduce carbon emissions. This recent research may lead to better interfaces and help find new ways to manage this (very real) Zoom fatigue. In the meantime, these simple tips to adjust your Zoom screen can help you to cope.

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J.R. Flaherty

Written by

Unlearner. Essentialist. Writer. Better Marketing. The Startup. CYMCYL. Twitter: @jrflaherty2

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