Many people are reporting similar experiences that it has earned its own slang term, Zoom fatigue, though this exhaustion also applies if you’re using MS Teams, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface. The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what has always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.
Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, thinks people may be surprised at how difficult they’re finding video calls given that the medium seems neatly confined to a small screen and presents few obvious distractions.
We communicate even when we are quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt.
These cues help us paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what is expected in response from the listener. Since we evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to parse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy.
However, as we have all found recently, typical video calls impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed.
“For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,” Franklin says. Prolonged eye contact has become the strongest facial cue readily available, and it can feel threatening or overly intimate if held too long.
Having a departmental meeting or a multi-person conference call can magnify this exhausting problem. This challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.
Group video chats may become less collaborative and more like siloed panels, in which only two people at a time talk while the rest listen. Because each participant is using one audio stream and is aware of all the other voices, parallel conversations are impossible. If you view a single speaker at a time, you cannot recognise how non-active participants are behaving—something you would normally pick up with peripheral vision.
It is possible Zoom fatigue will fade once people learn to navigate the mental tangle that video chatting can cause. If you are feeling self-conscious or overstimulated, it is recommended that you turn off your camera. Save your energy for when you absolutely want to perceive the few non-verbal cues that do come through, such as during the taxing chats with people you don’t know very well, or for when you want the warm feeling you get from seeing someone you love. Or if it is a work meeting that can be done by phone, try walking at the same time.
A bit of fresh air and exercise is an added bonus and one we thoroughly recommend.
LAW clients can seek coronavirus guidance from the Health & Safety At Work team throughout.