When the pandemic hit the U.S. last spring and forced us into our homes, many people began using video chat services like Zoom to connect with others. It seems like the perfect solution to enable kids to learn remotely while adults catch up with far-away friends and fulfill work duties from the comfort of their couch, right?
The problem with all this Zoom-ing is that it can take a toll on our mental health, leaving us feeling drained after video calls and making us feel guilty for not looking forward to our niece’s Zoom bat mitzvah. But why does something that seems like the technological solution to our problems have this effect on our energy levels? There are a few reasons.
Why does Zoom fatigue happen?
It has a lot do with the way our brain processes conversation. “In in-person interactions that happen in real time, our brains do this very natural dance and are able to easily and naturally pick up on nonverbal cues, such as a person’s facial expression, and see their full body in 3D,” says Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D., psychologist in Bryn Mawr, PA, and author of Logged In and Stressed Out. “What is now being found is that on virtual platforms there’s a very little delay—it could be milliseconds—and that is actually causing some of the exhaustion. Our brains now have to use different skillsets and it takes more time, energy, and work to fill in gaps that our brains are naturally wired to do with our in-person interactions.”
For instance, when you run into a friend at the grocery store, unconscious parts of your brain seamlessly take in their body language and what’s going on around both of you in the store to help you figure out what to say. But on Zoom, you have no idea if a friend is fidgeting and itching to get away, directing their attention to their off-camera child, or if that pause in conversation is a glitch in the Internet connection. Your brain is in a continuous state of uncertainty about what’s going on.
The next issue we run into with Zoom is the challenge of focusing on one person at a time when a ton of Brady Bunch-like squares are staring at you. “When we’re in person with each other, we can look at one person at a time as we’re talking to that individual,” says Asha Tarry, L.M.S.W., psychotherapist and certified life coach, and author of Adulting as a Millennial. “But when we’re looking into a screen and we’re seeing lots of people at once, it’s hard to really concentrate and what people tend to do is either look away or build up tension in their bodies as they try not to look away so as not to appear distracted or uninterested.”
Think about it: When you’re in a room with other people, you know exactly who is looking at you and who is looking down at their feet—and in return you can decide whom you want to give attention to. “The science is showing that not being able to turn your gaze, or to be able to focus on one person at a time, has been really challenging for people to do, and that then of course breeds more brain stress and can then create fatigue,” explains Tarry.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s the added pressure of how we look on Zoom. “Before COVID-19, we went to an office building or we went to wherever it was that we worked and people were invited if we decided to bring them back into our homes and into our personal space, but of course now that is not the case,” says Durlofsky. For some people, she says, this may spark a fear of judgement, either of their personal space or even their own physical appearance on-screen. After all, there’s even a Twitter account now dedicated to judging people’s Zoom backgrounds.
“There’s also creating, in some ways, a kind of work environment that would involve, I would imagine, extra cleanup or setup,” adds Durlofsky. “That, in and of itself is stressful and then, of course, there’s the complete lack of physical boundary between work life and home life, which is, psychologically very destabilizing.”
All of this is to say, if you’re tired of Zoom, you’re not alone. Our brains and bodies have been thrown into a new situation in the midst of all the other stressors triggered by the current pandemic. “In-person interactions are complex, and our brain is processing and registering and making judgments and figuring out what to do next or what to say next in a very delicate and complex way,” says Durlofsky. “Virtual platforms are the second-best thing, of course, but it’s still not the optimal way for us to connect and to interact. At the moment, it’s the safest and we have to deal with it.”
Here’s how to fight Zoom fatigue no matter how many meetings and virtual baby showers come your way.
1. Recognize your feelings.
“Acknowledge feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, anxious, or maybe even depressed,” says Durlofsky. “It’s all very human and natural and to acknowledge this is the way you feel and give yourself permission to feel these reasonable and quite healthy feelings is really important.” The more we try to ignore negative emotions, the worse they get, she says. “It also inhibits our ability to come up with skillful solutions,” Durlofsky points out.
2. Say no when you can.
Before the pandemic started, there were likely times when you had to tell someone, “I’m sorry I can’t make that meeting.” Your right to say no didn’t go away just because you’re at home—you still have other priorities, including your own mental health. “Give yourself permission to say no or to reschedule when possible,” says Durlofsky.
3. Resist the urge to multitask.
When you’re not the one sharing your computer screen on a call, it can be really tempting to check email and take care of other seemingly mindless tasks. The problem is that multitasking overloads your already-stressed brain, making it harder to keep up with what’s going on in your Zoom and exacerbating the fatigue you feel afterward.
4. Give yourself time to breathe.
“Many people have lost their jobs and companies are hurting and laying off people so it’s really understandable that people that people are going to feel this incredible pressure to perform,” says Durlofsky. If you can, she recommends building in a buffer between Zoom calls to let yourself regroup. “When we’re involved with intense meetings or calls, our bodies feel that too, but having 10 to 15 minutes to bring your temperature down—your emotional temperature as well as your physical body—is really helpful,” she explains.
“We all hold a lot of tension in our bodies, particularly in our digestive systems, shoulders, and back,” says Durlofsky. “Listen to what your body is saying and if you’re noticing that you’re tense in your back or your shoulder or you’re having some issues with your digestion, take a break, get up, and stretch.”
6. Turn your camera off.
This might sound obvious, but relieving the pressure of being on camera can make a huge difference in your stress level—we can’t all be “on” 24/7. You know when a meeting is particularly important and you should be visually present, but when there’s one that won’t require you to speak much, ask your team if they mind if you stay off camera for it.
7. Talk to your manager.
Be creative and ask about other ways to get the information from meetings without being on Zoom, suggests Tarry. Emphasize how invested you are in your work, explain that the amount of time you spend on Zoom can take you away from other tasks or be mentally draining, and mention some solutions you’d like to explore.
For instance, is your presence really necessary? Maybe you can hop on the call in the beginning to discuss one topic and then sign off. Do you really need to see each other to talk this through? Maybe an audio-only call will suffice. Are other colleagues Zoomed-out, too? Maybe you can set a limit on the number of weekly Zooms you have with each other. “Once upon a time, when we had a meeting, someone would record the notes,” says Tarry. “So, with Zoom, is it possible that leadership or management can record the meeting, and people can receive the Zoom recording later or a summary of the notes via email?”
8. Practice self-care.
This is something we hear over and over again, but many of us shrug off because we feel like we don’t have time or that it’s a selfish way to spend what limited time we have. “Self-care practices are so important to our emotional health and should be something that we commit to doing just like we commit to taking care of our physical health,” says Durlofsky. “The aim of self-care is that it is an activity that recharges us and refuels us when we’re feeling tired or our tank is low. Whether it be reading, exercising, watching a silly movie, taking a shower, calling a friend, or doing meditation or yoga, it’s really important that it is a priority.” When you feel better mentally, those Zoom calls won’t be so draining.
9. Consider everything going on.
“There are so many factors at play right now simultaneously with multiple losses and stressors,” says Tarry. “There’s the pandemic that everyone’s experiencing, but then there are also people who are experiencing grief.” People are grieving loved ones, jobs, income, privacy, and the freedom to go about their normal routines. “As well we have the racial uprisings that continue and all of the unsettled cases with police brutality and communities of color,” says Tarry. “There are so many factors that are affecting people that can compound grief, which adds to what appears to be Zoom fatigue, but is really general malaise.” This means the Zoom fatigue you’re experiencing may actually be a symptom of other underlying issues, which may not have a simple fix. Talking to a mental health professional can prove invaluable in times like these.
10. See what resources your company offers.
Tap into the mental health benefits available to you, such as counselor or a mindfulness session. Not everyone is in the same boat and we all have different ways of coping with stressors. “I think right now it’s going to be really valuable for leadership to amp up their emotional intelligence,” says Tarry, who adds that some companies offer special trainings and workshops to help managers build their emotional IQ. When everyone has a better understanding and is more compassionate, it’s easier to navigate difficulties and find solutions together.