If you’ve been working remotely for any amount of time, chances are you’ve experienced some kind of “Zoom fatigue.”
We probably don’t need to explain it to you, but just in case: The phrase Zoom fatigue refers to “an overall sense of being drained after a long day of assorted video meetings,” says Tammy Allen, a professor and the director of industrial-organized psychology at the University of South Florida. The phenomenon isn’t specific to Zoom, a video conferencing platform that quickly evolved into an eponymous noun—and, for some, even a verb—referring to any kind of video meeting. Whether it’s Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or any other kind of virtual conferencing, spending your working hours on these platforms can be an energy suck.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology pinpointed factors such as lack of belonging and late-in-the-day meetings as major contributors to Zoom fatigue. “We had participants respond to hourly surveys over the course of five days,” says one of the study authors, Emily Campion, who’s an assistant professor of management at Old Dominion University. “We have strong evidence that the meetings cause fatigue.”
There are a number of specific aspects of video conferencing that led to exhaustion, according to a study published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior by Jeremy Bailenson, a communication professor at Stanford University. They are (feel free to nod your head knowingly): the consistent (and unnaturally close-up) eye contact; the cognitive load associated with trying to connect without many of the non-verbal cues we use in person and attempting to interpret body language through the screen; the consequences of staring at yourself all day; and, finally, the lack of physical movement.
It’s not all bad news, though. There are several ways to prevent Zoom fatigue from ruining your day. Since remote and hybrid work setups are here to stay, it’s worth trying out at least a few of these strategies to reduce the Zoom gloom.
We’re not used to staring at our own faces while presenting or even just chatting with colleagues in a meeting. This new normal can “make individuals more self-conscious,” Allen says, adding that managing our expectations around our appearances is just another thing that’s boggling our brains, leading to fatigue.
And we’re just not accustomed to making eye contact with groups or seeing people’s faces so close up for extended periods of time. Doing so can certainly zap you of energy—and it can also be a physical strain on the eyes, Allen says.
The fix for this is pretty simple: You can play with the settings of your video platform to make sure you’re not visible to yourself (on Zoom, for example, you’d click “Hide Self View”), or you can minimize the platform entirely. Even if your company expects you to be on video, you can still just listen to the conversation without staring at faces (your own or anyone else’s!).
Campion’s research found that people who had video meetings scheduled later in the day felt more fatigued. So it could be beneficial to meet this way earlier in the day, and try to get your company on board, too. Of course, with varying time zones, an early morning Zoom may not always be possible. Focus on doing it when you can, Campion says.
“You’re on mute!” may have become the most common expression of our time—and while it might elicit jokes about why we’re still having to use it after so many months of practice with remote work, reminding people to turn on their mics is less depleting than being in a constant state of worry about disruption coming from your remote space.
Much of remote work is happening in our homes, which we share with partners, kids, and animals that lack proper tech etiquette, and there’s a lot for us to balance cognitively. Video conferencing is “a little bit of an invasion of privacy,” Allen says. “You’re inviting your colleagues into your home…and if you’re speaking and your child starts yelling, ‘Mommy!’ in the background, well, that’s something very different from having an in-person meeting in the office.” In a sense, this all amounts to an involuntary blending of church and state.
Campion says her team’s research found that the mute button helped folks control some of the chaos, which lessened feelings of fatigue. “If you use mute, you’re less likely to be monitoring the space around you,” she says. “You can make a noise, my cat can be off yelling—my cat really yells.”
When a video chat could be an email (or text or phone call), make it one. Video conferencing for a quick question requires formalities that communicating with non-visual tools do not: You might have to straighten up your space, put on a bra, brush your hair, or engage in small talk that, in some cases, can feel like a chore.
Allen says we should all feel comfortable pushing back on video requests, especially when they’re one-on-one meetings. When you’re asked to join what may seem like a needless video call, ask if you can switch to an alternative form of communication. And if you’re the one scheduling the meeting, well then go ahead and choose the road less traveled.
It might even be helpful to have a bigger discussion with your boss or team. You could say something like, “I’m finding that I feel particularly exhausted when I have several video calls set up in one day, and I’d like to see if cutting back could help.” Or you might suggest something like, “Can we experiment with mixing in some video meeting alternatives and see how they work for us?” This way, your colleagues will know where you’re coming from, and may even want to join you in la résistance.
If you and your colleagues are on the same page—too much video conferencing is the pits—maybe it’s time to institute some Zoom-free days. It wouldn’t be unheard of: Citibank, for example, recently instituted a ban on Friday Zooms to help its employees recover from fatigue. Easing up on the video calls could benefit your whole office.
If you don’t feel you’re in the position to suggest this out of the blue, you might first poll a few coworkers you’re close with and gauge their interest in implementing such a policy. If you find there’s support for Zoom-free days, you could raise the idea with your manager during a one-on-one meeting, citing companies like Citibank and resources (ahem, this article) that suggest too much video conferencing can deplete employees. Hopefully, your manager will commend your proactive approach and want to team up with you.
Part of what’s so exhausting about meeting on Zoom is that you don’t really know what your colleagues are going to be doing until you show up. Ever hop into a video call only to see you’re the only one on camera? It can feel pretty awkward.
To alleviate some of this discomfort, you and your colleagues might want to work on a few Zoom standards. These can differ from meeting to meeting: Maybe you write in the calendar invite whether cameras are necessary or not. You (and your colleagues) might even develop a kind of Zoom manifesto for your team or company, in which you can focus on some of the other points on this list: Request earlier meeting times, avoid certain days entirely, promote the mute button, and more.
When you’re all on the same page, it’ll be easier to communicate, as many of the hiccups that make these meetings slow and uncomfortable will be accounted for. All of this will design meetings that run more efficiently, while helping to mitigate any anxiety, confusion, and the fatigue these might cause.
Taking breaks at work has always been important—for both your health and your productivity. Now, getting some time away from the computer during the day is critical since you don’t have built-in breaks. When working in an office setting, you at least moved from the conference room to your desk, Allen says, and often people could stand up during these meetings to stretch.
Video meetings have a way of constraining your mobility, since staying in the video frame means remaining in place. One way to fight this? Turn the camera off so you can stand or fit in a few lunges during the meeting. Squeezing in short bursts of movement throughout your day will help you feel more energized and give your eyes, body, and brain a much-needed break.
Remote workers say that “the lack of interaction with coworkers” is one of the worst parts of the deal, Allen says. While we may “see” our coworkers every day through video, it’s impossible to replicate the same connection and closeness of physically working together. A subtle side-eye to your work BFF, for example, just can’t translate via Zoom, Allen says. “That energy cannot be captured over a video meeting.” For some people, video meetings can “serve as a reminder of what we’re missing,” she says. The longing accumulates as we continue to meet through video, and it can be plain exhausting.
Campion agrees that connecting with the people you’re meeting with can be difficult and often feels “transactional,” which is why she says it’s so important to find ways to feel close. In larger meetings, this may not be possible or useful, but in smaller department meetings, she suggests those putting in an extra effort to “create camaraderie and coherence in a team.” Try to incorporate small strategies into each meeting you organize and encourage others to do the same.
The exact approach will look different at every company: Some might be game for sharing an “apocalypse meal” to mimic the connection you share when eating lunch together in the cafeteria. Others may start off a certain recurring meeting with different icebreaker questions each time so people can get to know one another better. And who says there can’t be special bring-your-dog-to-work meetings?
Anything you can do to make folks feel like they belong will help make these meetings just a little less exhausting.