Imagine being the people at Zoom. Eighteen months ago, few people had heard of you. Then the COVID lockdown begins and suddenly you’re the most popular new software in the world. Then, just as suddenly, you’re the cause of something called “Zoom fatigue” and people hate you. Hardly seems fair. But to remote workers around the world, it is very real. A report from Stanford University suggests there are four reasons for this syndrome.
I suspect there’s a fifth as well.
First, what is “Zoom fatigue”? To be fair, Zoom takes the blame but it applies equally to WebEx, Teams, or any other platform. It’s the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication. Basically, it explains why you’re more exhausted after a day of video meetings than you were when you were in person.
The Stanford study suggests four reasons why this happens:
Zoom involves excessive amounts of work for your eyes.
The more people on the call, the smaller the images, and the greater the number. Because we are wired to seek out color, light, and motion, we literally can’t stop our eyes scanning continually. Plus we’re staring into a screen, and possibly a light source for the duration of the meeting.
Seeing yourself on camera is exhausting and stressful.
Imagine if in every meeting you had a big mirror sitting in front of you while you chatted. Not only is it something else for you to look at (and stress about), but now every time you scratch your nose you worry that someone is watching. High definition cameras will do nothing to lower any self-esteem issues you have, and you are constantly vigilant against intruding cats, kids and spouses distracting your peers.
Video chats reduce our motion and drain our energy.
When we are on a phone call we can stretch, get up and walk, or uncrick our neck with nobody watching. When we’re visible to everyone we have to remain basically (and unnaturally) still.
Your brain (the cognitive load) works much harder on video.
When we are on webcam, we tend to remain in one place so we are centered onscreen. We have to make a lot more conscious motions, such as offering a thumbs up or make sure we nod at someone’s insightful comment less they think we aren’t watching. We do those things in person, too, but it’s unconscious. Any time we have to think about something it takes more work than if it’s spontaneous and simply muscle memory.
Each of these has relatively simple solutions. You can change the view on your screen so you aren’t looking at so many images at once. Once you’ve said hello, turn your camera off if you’re not the active speaker. Rearrange your set-up so you’re not staring into a lightbulb. There are several good things you can do. None of them eliminate the fifth, and possibly most logical reason for your feeling burnt out and exhausted:
Too many #$@$%#$@%ing meetings.
While it’s great to keep in visual contact with our peers, and we need to communicate more frequently (and for shorter periods, something people tend to forget) when we work remotely, we also need to be mindful of how we use each other’s time. Does every conversation need to be all-hands-on-deck? Can we actually use email more intentionally and reduce the amount of time we spend on meetings? If you don’t know why you’re invited to a meeting, can you beg off? One of the reasons people used to enjoy working from home—at least when it was optional—is that they got to avoid some meetings. They could be left alone to get their work done. And, of course, when you had back to back meetings in the office it was pretty darned exhausting. Remember?
With all due respect to the good people at Stanford, maybe it’s not “Zoom fatigue.” Maybe you’re just plain pooped from too many meetings.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.