You may have heard people complain about Zoom fatigue, but it is not a just a late-night TV joke – video conference burnout is a real thing, as research shows. Earlier this year, the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms and identified four reasons why video conferences take a toll on us. The research found that:

1) Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense.

“In a normal meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. But on Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. A listener is treated nonverbally like a speaker, so even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” Bailenson [one of the researchers] said. “When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”

2) Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing.

Most video platforms show a square of what you look like on camera during a chat. But that’s unnatural, Bailenson said. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” he added.

3) Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.

“In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move. But with videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. Movement is limited in ways that are not natural. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said.

4) The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.

Bailenson notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals.

Another study from Stanford University said that women experience much more Zoom fatigue than men.

“The research, which hasn’t been peer-reviewed, suggests that video calls simply amplify the longstanding gender dynamics in group settings and exacerbate an already wide gender stress gap, with women consistently reporting more stress and stress-related health conditions than men, according to the American Psychological Association.”

See: Zoom Burnout Is Real, and It’s Worse for Women

It doesn’t look like videoconferencing is going anywhere soon. In fact, it’s likely that it is a permanent part of the work landscape – and it does have a lot of pluses, such as enabling remote working and hybrid work arrangements. But there’s always a learning curve when adapting to new technologies. Hopefully, we’ll all get better as we go.

Meanwhile, here’s a compilation of ideas about what organizations can do to reduce the stress, strain, and burnout that employees are experiencing.

  • Get people comfortable with the tools. Offer one-to-one or webinar trainings and tips on the specific video conferencing tool that your organization uses. Presenters may need special attention. Cover screen sharing, turning cameras and mics on and off, how to select a background or lighting, and any other questions your team might have. Some people are not very tech savvy and find the interface worrisome or intimidating. People fear a mistake that could then be broadcast on social media, such as the widely shared hilarious but humiliating “I am not a cat”  incident.
  • Have a “no sharing” rule. Speaking of social shares, consider a “what happens in the meeting stays in the meeting” sharing rule. Have people agree that they will not post colleagues on social media without permission.
  • Give people permission to opt out of video. CEO of IBM Arvind Krishna developed a Work From Home Pledge that said switching off video was 100% OK. There are many reasons someone might be uncomfortable being on camera, such as stress about privacy, discomfort about sharing a camera view of the home environment, or worry about the potential for family members to interrupt. Many people don’t mind being on camera, but many people are camera-shy.
  • Don’t surprise people with unscheduled video conference meetings. People want notice so they can control their environment, be prepared, and present themselves in the best possible light. Schedule video-enabled meetings in advance.
  • Hold fewer, shorter video meetings. Video conferences should be shorter in duration than in-person meetings to minimize fatigue and stress. Reducing them by even 5 or 10 minutes can help. If a topic requires longer conversations, schedule in in two meetings, or give a brief break.
  • Use “old-school” tools, too. Not every team meeting needs to be a video conference. Don’t forget about the trusty old standbys: emails and the telephone.

Tips for video conference attendees

  • Be fully and neatly dressed to get your head in the game and to avoid any embarrassing mishaps.
  • Preview your appearance and learn to use any touch up filters available on the conference tool to feel confident about how you present. Practice your setup in advance so you see what others will see.
  • Don’t watch yourself during the meeting, watch the other attendees. This may be easier said than done. Make use of the “hide self-view” option or try using “speaker view” instead of “gallery view” to focus on one person at a time.
  • If you are a presenter, ask another colleague, an IT person, or search Google for tips on mastering the essentials of the video-conferencing software you are using.
  • Turn off the camera now and then for brief stretches or deskercizing. Sitting and focusing on a screen can restrict movement, so building in a minute or two of movement can help.
  • Minimize distractions. Shut off notifications of incoming mail and texts. Stay focused.
  • Try headphones or earphones to reduce distractions and ambient noises.

For more great tips, check out his video and the associated blog post: 10+ Tips to Prevent Zoom Fatigue


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