If you like me have adopted Zoom and Microsoft teams meetings as part of your everyday work repertoire, how has this affected you?
While extremely grateful to have these technologies available, they provided a lifeline to my speakers and consultancy business during the lockdowns in 2020, they are a double-edged sword.
The first half-day virtual workshop I conducted left me exhausted to the point I had to lie down afterwards to rest my eyes and my brain. Mentally drained, I felt unable to do anything else useful for the rest of the day let alone speak in coherent sentences to my husband.
As a presenter and educator, I’m always mindful of the need to keep my audience’s attention. Doing this virtually took this to a whole new level. It’s hard work. I began to feel like the organ-grinder’s monkey jumping up and down, over-exaggerating my gestures and over-compensating for the lack of being able to interact with individuals more directly.
Then I started to hear stories of those working from home enduring back-to-back calls with no time for a coffee break, let alone a lunch break and we all saw those early Zoom mishaps of people using the bathroom without realising they were still on camera or discovering a cat filter had been applied to their image.
Zoom fatigue became the new buzzword. But is it real?
The answer is yes.
Studies have shown that spending 30 minutes or more interacting on a screen chews up a significant amount of cognitive energy to the point you find it harder after that to stay paying focused attention.
Jumping straight from one Teams meeting to the next without a break means there is no opportunity for a mental breather or to go for a 2-minute stretch. Stress levels start to rise, especially when the first meeting is running late and you’re supposed to be joining the next and the irritated convener is sending you messages asking “where are you?”
Worse still, the content of the webinar or online presentation may be really interesting, but I’m cognitively done around the 45-minute mark. No matter how good a presenter you are or how valid your material I’m now switched off and mentally disappeared down a nearby rabbit hole. It’s a higher cognitive load when we are required to interact on screen.
A study from Stanford University found not only is zoom fatigue real, but also that women experience greater fatigue than men. They were curious to discover why.
Let’s look at what they found.
One in seven (<14%) women felt very to extremely fatigued after back-to-back zoom calls compared to one in twenty (5.5%) men.
Using their ZEF Scale (Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale) they surveyed over 10,000 people over a 2-month period in 2021 and found that women were disproportionately affected by having to look at themselves during the call. Self-focused attention is that heightened awareness of what you look like to others. In women, this created greater anxiety about how they looked and came across to their colleagues.
Normally if I’ve brushed my hair, put on some appropriate work clothes and applied some lippy, I’m good to go. But on a Zoom call, you’re constantly being reminded of how you look. Wanting to appear interested and attentive I smile a lot into the camera and nod when in agreement with what someone else is saying to show I’ve heard. It’s a lot more consciously effortful.
That’s why I loved discovering that I can hide my self-view, although I did make the mistake once of doing that after presenting at an online conference not realising that while I couldn’t see me, the other people on the call still could. Having taken myself out of the Zoom call room with my laptop and started to make myself some lunch I got an urgent text message asking me to turn my video off because my activity was distracting the others! Oops.
Not only that, in a face-to-face event you have the opportunity to get up to stretch your legs if needed, to stand up against a wall if your back is aching, to pour yourself some water, make a quick cuppa, take a loo break or quietly distract yourself with your phone if the meeting is boring.
On Zoom, others can see what you’re up to. They can tell when you’re no longer focused, or you’re doing something else. Even if you’ve muted yourself, it’s usually obvious that you’re typing on the keyboard. Remember too that multitasking is a myth. You can only focus your attention on one thing at a time. If you’re busy answering an urgent email, you’re not paying attention to what’s happening on screen. At worst, you end up missing the critical component of the meeting and create multiple bloopers in your email. Attempting to multitask has been shown to lower productivity by up to 40%.
Better to have a shorter meeting on-line and do your emails at another time.
Now you have to put more effort in to keep looking at the presenter’s face. Constant gaze is not only unnatural it’s exhausting. That’s why that 30 second peek outside the window can make such a difference to restore attention, but how do you do that when your screen is facing in a different direction?
Another factor they noted that was in meetings run predominantly by women, their meetings ran longer, and they also took fewer breaks. Hmm, why should that be?
In addition, they showed that extroverts develop less exhaustion than introverts. Anxious people are more likely to have higher levels of fatigue than calm people and interestingly younger participants also showed more fatigue compared to their older counterparts.
Ways to overcome Zoom fatigue.
Enforce regular breaks between calls
Make taking a 10-15 minute break between meetings mandatory except in the case of emergency.
Review your meetings strategy.
Do you need to attend so many? Can you have fewer meetings and for shorter periods of time? Can you revise who really needs to be at the meeting? There’s nothing worse than feeling trapped in a meeting that you feel has no relevance to you and is getting in your way of getting on with what you have to do.
Have a video meetings free day each week.
Audio only calls can work really well. Do you offer the choice to your colleagues or clients?
Make being “on screen” a choice
If video is not adding anything to the meeting, elect to switch it off.
Check your own level of ZEF
Taking the survey can provide you with an idea of just how much the video aspect and frequency of meeting is affecting your energy levels. You can access the survey here.
Your results are further broken down into 5 sub-types of fatigue; emotional, motivational, visual, social and general. I was fascinated to see how I scored and grateful that for the most part, I don’t have as many calls to schedule as if I was working within an organisation. Phew.
Do something to refresh and restore
Being an introvert who needs regular downtime, often alone, to recharge my mental batteries, I try to ensure I space video calls out. Rather than feeling pressured to fit into the other person’s schedule, I’ll ask – can we do this next week or the week after? Or can we do an audio call instead?
My go-to is to get out of the office and out into the great outdoors. No phone, no music, no podcast because I need to fill every waking moment with yet MORE stuff. Just me and our dog. Walking together enjoying each other’s company and tuning into our environment.
I’ve also got much stricter about calling time on screen time. While I freely admit there’s still room for improvement, I’ll call “last drinks” around 6 pm and then ignore the mobile and laptop until the following day.
If you’re holding a Zoom party soon, please don’t be offended if I choose not to attend. It’s not that I don’t enjoy your company, I’m just protecting my mental energy banks.
How do you manage your busy schedule?
Are you suffering from Zoom fatigue?
If yes, what can you do to protect your mental energy and encourage others to do the same?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.