Screen Burnout: What Is Zoom Fatigue and How to Tackle It

What Is Zoom Fatigue and How to Tackle It

The rise of remote work brings both opportunities and challenges, like Zoom Fatigue.

Covid-19 has brought a remarkable shift in the way we work on a global scale. Research indicates that in advanced nations, 20-25% of workforces can function remotely three to five days a week, marking a four to five-fold increase from pre-pandemic figures. This surge in remote work has the potential to steer individuals and businesses away from major urban centers towards suburban regions. Consequently, despite the absence of physical interactions in these new virtual workspaces, their robust digital connections continue to facilitate effective communication.

While people have returned to the office, the momentum of remote working hasn’t waned. Remote work, on many occasions, has proven to boost creativity and save time. Remarkably, a video call consumes about 10% less energy than traditional face-to-face meetings. However, the virtual work mode isn’t without challenges. It has amplified mental health concerns, including anxiety, insomnia and, notably, a phenomenon termed “Zoom Fatigue”.

What is “Zoom Fatigue”?

Unlike general work fatigue, Zoom Fatigue is the unique physical and mental strain experienced after virtual meetings on video conferencing apps. This fatigue can strike after work-related engagements, online classes or even Zoom webinars. Its origins are multifaceted, stemming from prolonged screen exposure, restricted physical activity and heightened cognitive demands, and it can manifest in blurry vision, headaches and body aches. 

Moreover, Zoom Fatigue can erode one’s social life. The physical and mental exhaustion resulting from prolonged screen time can curtail social engagement, leading to diminished interest in spending time with loved ones or the cancellation of social commitments altogether.

Root Causes of Zoom Fatigue

Mirror anxiety: If you find yourself constantly looking at your little rectangle in a Zoom meeting with a sense of discomfort caused by self-consciousness or appearance dissatisfaction, you might be facing mirror anxiety. During Zoom meetings, the video feed acts like a mirror, making us more conscious of our appearance. Unlike in-person conversations, where self-scrutiny is less likely, the “mirror” effect of Zoom can be mentally draining. This heightened self-awareness can lead to excessive energy expenditure as we strive to maintain a polished appearance by smiling and nodding our heads.

“Zoom Dysmorphia”: Continuous focus on one’s video feed can distort self-perception, a phenomenon termed as “Zoom Dysmorphia”. As noted by certified dermatologist Shadi Kourosh, who coined this term in 2021, front-facing cameras can exaggerate facial features, such as enlarging the nose or shrinking the eyes. This distorted self-image can cause considerable mental strain and lead to dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance.

Feeling physically trapped: Video calls restrict physical mobility. In a traditional work environment, people would engage in other activities simultaneously, like using a whiteboard, grabbing a cup of coffee or having impromptu in-person meetups. However, video conferencing limits us to the camera’s frame. This limitation can cause physical ailments like headaches, migraines and stiffness, to name a few.

Hyper gaze: If you feel like the spotlight is on you during a Zoom call (even though that might not be true), you might be experiencing hyper gaze. Because the meeting participants are looking into the camera at the same time, it creates an illusion that everyone is looking at you, adding to your psychological stress.

Decoding non-verbal cues: During physical interactions, we pick up body language cues (or the lack thereof) like hand gestures, speaking tone or facial expression to evaluate their speech and intent and make social judgments. However, using virtual platforms requires additional cognitive effort to interpret these non-verbal signals. Studies indicate that this may be especially taxing for women, who often rely on these non-verbal cues to make social judgments. Consequently, the need to decode these cues can contribute to mental exhaustion.

How to prevent Zoom Fatigue

Recent research indicates that virtual meetings can be more exhausting than in-person interactions due to distractions and the propensity to multitask. However, it’s clear that remote work and online communications have become integral parts of our modern lifestyle. Recognizing this, it’s crucial to develop strategies to minimize the effects of Zoom Fatigue:

  • Plan and prioritize: Not all meetings can be side-stepped, especially the critical ones. If your day is packed with crucial video calls that can’t be skipped, it’s essential to ensure you incorporate short breaks whenever feasible. Use these breaks to rejuvenate by engaging in refreshing activities. Perhaps take a garden stroll, practice a hobby, play a sport or even indulge in a quick power nap. Resist the temptation to plunge into other digital distractions, such as social media or gaming.
  • Lean on alternative communication: Wherever feasible, choose text messages and emails instead of virtual meetings. This will not only minimize screen fatigue but also streamline your day, offering reprieves from back-to-back virtual meetups. 
  • Be flexible with scheduling: In case you are experiencing feelings of burnout or mental fog, it’s okay to reschedule non-urgent calls or meetings. Rescheduling allows you to participate when you’re at your cognitive best.
  • Prepare mentally for meetings: Before logging into a meeting, take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the agenda, engage in some deep breathing exercises and organize your workspace. Entering a virtual meeting with clarity can enhance your concentration and reduce stress.
  • Limit camera use: If you find the constant visual engagement overwhelming, consider turning off your camera. Use the chat function for communication, or only enable the video when you’re speaking. This not only reduces self-consciousness but also combats the effects of “hyper gaze”.
  • Resist multitasking: Keep your workspace clear of distractions and declutter your browser of unrelated tabs. Engaging in several tasks simultaneously can overburden your cognitive functions, leading to quicker burnout.
  • Opt for speaker view: Instead of gallery view, where you can see all participants at once on your screen, switch to the speaker view. This focuses your attention on the active speaker and reduces the stress of feeling observed by multiple participants. It also alleviates the constant self-awareness triggered by the “mirror gaze”.

Tackling Zoom Fatigue requires a comprehensive approach that acknowledges the benefits and drawbacks of virtual interactions. Striking a balance between the utilization of technology and the need for genuine human connections is pivotal for cultivating a healthy digital workspace. By implementing the strategies outlined above, we can navigate the digital world with greater mindfulness and enhanced well-being. 

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Header image courtesy of Pexels 

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