‘Zoom fatigue’: tired after your online meeting

The online consultation only lasted an hour, but afterwards you are left exhausted. As if after three hours of concentrated work you come out from under a rock and can barely process the impressions from the real world around you. And then you still have half a working day ahead of you… This so-called ‘zoom fatigue’ has been a well-known phenomenon since we started working from home en masse more than a year ago. What makes communicating online via video calling so much more tiring than normal social interaction?

Zoom posted seven times as much profit in the first quarter of 2021 as a year earlier. That profit comes from paying users, who can make video calls in larger groups and for longer than forty minutes.

Zoom

From ten to three hundred million

Research into zoom fatigue has yet to get off the ground – it is therefore a relatively new phenomenon. The technical possibilities for online meetings had been there for years, but it was only since March 2020, the start of the corona pandemic, that the use really took off. Within a few months, the number of image callers via Zoom, which had already been in existence for ten years, rose from ten million to three hundred million per day. And they all experienced first-hand how grueling such an online meeting is.

Although good research into zoom fatigue is still largely lacking, something can be said about it based on what we know from previous research into attention, concentration and online communication. Last February the American Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication and founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, published an article in which he explains four explanations of zoom fatigue.

Non-verbal signalen

He mentions the first source of fatigue as the hypergaze: You have eye contact for too long and too close with too many people at once. During a normal conversation it is very normal and accepted to look away every now and then, but online all participants are constantly staring at the screen. Moreover, everyone comes into the picture quite prominently, which in real life would correspond to about fifty centimeters from nose to nose – while you experience everything below sixty centimeters as ‘intimate contact’. And that often online with several people at the same time, which is mentally exhausting.

In addition, Bailenson points out that communication via Zoom requires more of you, as a sender and as a receiver. As a broadcaster you have to make sure that you are clearly visible, nod excessively and extra long when you agree and consciously look directly into the camera to create the illusion of real eye contact. In addition, research from Tilburg shows that you can easily speak fifteen percent louder online. As a receiver you only receive a fraction of the non-verbal signals that you would normally pick up and you still have to distill a complete message from them. That all costs energy.

Exercise

As a third explanation for the fatigue, the American mentions the fact that you continuously see yourself on your screen. Decades of research have shown that seeing yourself in a mirror inevitably makes you feel stressed. And then the subjects in these earlier experiments usually only briefly looked at their own reflection, while we zoomers sometimes do this for hours on end.

Bailenson mentions being physically ‘stuck’ in front of your computer during video calling as the last explanation for zoom fatigue. During normal meetings it is sometimes fine to go for a walk or grab some water from the water cooler. Research even shows that this exercise is good for creativity and productivity. But while zooming, you’re forced to stay in the frame and close to your mouse and keyboard. Sitting still costs energy.

The gestures you automatically make when you speak are often out of the picture, while helping the listener understand you.

Mark van Vugt, professor of evolutionary psychology at VU Amsterdam, calls Bailenson’s theory “very plausible”. He sees the limited non-verbal communication in particular as a major stumbling block for video calling. “Normally, a large part of communication takes place non-verbally. Hand gestures add to the meaning; these are now often just out of the picture. You can also often deduce from eye movements how something falls: people turn their eyes away, close them longer or, on the contrary, seek eye contact – and therefore support – from other people present. Everyone is staring at their screen online, so there are fewer signals to interpret. You still have to get the whole, complex message from that.”

Male-Female Differences

This spring, Bailenson, together with Swedish researcher Géraldine Fauville, developed a questionnaire to assess your sensitivity to zoom fatigue in ten minutes, the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (ZEF scale). The author of this article scored 52 on this scale, which corresponds to a percentile score of 69: 31 percent of video callers experience zooming as more exhausting than I do.

Curious how you score on the ZEF scale?
fill here complete the (English) questionnaire. We would like to read in the comments below this article whether your score corresponds to your own experiences.

In April, Fauville and Bailenson published their first survey conducted with this ZEF scale among more than ten thousand video callers. This showed that women suffer more from zoom fatigue than men – even if we controlled for the finding that women had longer meetings on average with shorter breaks in between. “The longer meeting time can probably be explained by the fact that women often have a different leadership style than men, with more room for consultation,” explains Van Vugt. “Such a democratic leadership style takes more time.”

Overall, the biggest predictor of zoom fatigue turned out to be being physically tied to your computer and webcam. Subsequently, the participants successively experienced the continuous self-image, the hypergaze and the non-verbal communication as tiring factors of zooming. In women, self-esteem had on average a greater influence on zoom fatigue than physical limitations.

In Zoom you can self view turn it off by right clicking on your screen. Then choose ‘hide self view’. Other participants will continue to see you.

Prefer to call?

“The self view is automatically switched on, but it is better to switch it off”, advises Van Vugt. Why are we so inclined to look at ourselves on our screens? “It is very unnatural to see your own reflection so much; in the past this was only possible in a smooth water surface. That makes it very distracting,” says Van Vugt. Better still than turning it off yourself would be if Zoom did that self view defaults, Bailenson finds.

He also advises users to use a separate webcam and keyboard, so that you are less tied to your desk. He also advises switching off the video function more often or simply opting for a telephone consultation, so that all non-verbal information is lost anyway – so clear to all participants. Or even to completely reduce the amount of meetings, because they have increased considerably since we started working from home. Is that really always necessary?

Bailenson always emphasizes in his publications that, despite his substantive criticism, he is extremely grateful for the existence of Zoom and similar tools. He uses them a lot himself and has allowed him to remain productive as a scientist and keep in touch with friends and family during the pandemic. In addition, zooming is better for the environment: with an online meeting you save a lot of energy, studies show. Maybe that’s worth some mental energy too.

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