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How to cure cases of ‘Zoomitis’

Experts are starting to look at why video conferences leave us so fatigued and what we can do to improve the experience

Has anyone else found Zoom meetings hard going? My longest regular meeting at present is two hours, but it is not uncommon for this to be bookended with two one-and-a-half hour calls. After five hours of more or less straight video interaction, I feel a definite zombie-like state coming over me. I call it ‘Zoomitis’. And, in fairness, I should not just name check Zoom – Webex and Microsoft Teams are equally tiring.

So I was not in the least bit surprised to see Stanford University researchers warning that video calls are tiring us out.
Communications Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms. In a peer-reviewed article that systematically deconstructs Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective, Bailenson has identified four consequences of prolonged video chats (with accompanying solutions) that he says contribute to the feeling commonly known as “Zoom fatigue”. Here are the reasons:

  1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense.
    Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens, is unnatural. On Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased.
    Another source of stress is that, depending on your monitor size and whether you’re using an external monitor, faces on videoconferencing calls can appear too large for comfort.
    When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state,” Bailenson said. And Bailenson has a solution: He recommends taking Zoom out of the full-screen option and reducing the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor to minimise face size.
  2. Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing. Most video platforms show a square of what we look like on camera during a chat. It’s like in the real world, someone constantly following you around with a mirror. Bailenson references studies showing that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror,” he says.
    The solution, he suggests, is for platforms to change the default practice of beaming the video to both self and others, when it only needs to be sent to others. In the meantime, we can use the “hide self-view” button, which one can access by right-clicking their own picture in the video.
  3. Video meetings significantly reduce our usual mobility. With videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. There’s a growing body of research now that says when people are moving, they perform better cognitively.
    Solution? Bailenson recommends people think more about the room they’re videoconferencing in. For example, an external camera farther away from the screen will allow you to pace in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones. I was glad to see him also recommending that we turn our video off periodically during meetings – just to get a brief non-verbal rest.
  4. The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.Bailenson notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, non-verbal communication is quite natural. But in video conversations, we have to work harder to send and receive signals. Humans have effectively taken one of the most natural things in the world – an in-person conversation – and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought: If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up.

“That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate,” Bailenson explains. As a solution, he suggests that during long stretches of meetings, we give ourselves an “audio-only” break. Don’t just turn off your camera to take a break from having to be non-verbally active, but also turn your body away from the screen. This stops us feeling smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic, but socially meaningless.

“Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication, but just think about the medium – just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to,” Bailenson told Stanford News. It looks like videoconferencing is with us for the long haul. I hope the tips above help make it a more bearable experience for you.

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