By Natalie Taylor
Because of the pandemic lockdown, video calls have become more common than ever, but many are finding them exhausting. Zoom fatigue—the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overuse of videoconferencing—is widely prevalent, intense, and completely new. Stress, and the added work needed for these calls, are partially culpable for this condition.
Normal, face-to-face communications rely on non-verbal cues like touch, body posture, tone, and pitch of voice. We process emotional content through these means, subconsciously and within milliseconds. Words are only a part of communication; non-verbal cues create a context where words can take on different meanings.
On video, most of these cues are difficult to perceive because subtle facial expressions and full bodily gestures may not be captured on camera. Without these cues, on which we have relied since infancy, we need to work extra hard to fully understand content. Video conferencing requires a lot of work—making sure your head is framed right, or even a simple show of approval which might necessitate an exaggerated nod or putting your thumbs up. Silence is another normal part of conversation, but on video when it happens we wonder—is it a technical glitch, or has the person at the other end lost interest?
On videoconferencing the amount and type of eye contact is dramatically increased. This, and the unnatural size of faces, can be disturbing. Everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. Being on camera mimics being on stage, and a performative mode is stressful. It’s like watching television while television watches you. Seeing yourself continuously may feel as if somebody were following you with a mirror at all times. In-person and phone conversations allow us to walk around and move, but with videoconferencing, you generally stay in the same spot.
In addition, videoconferencing is another reminder of the disruption in our lives because of the pandemic. Were it not for that, we could be sitting in a living room or café and having lively, in-person conversations with all these people.
Here are two easy solutions: limiting video calls and limiting exposure to the camera. You can use the “hide-self-view” button after establishing you are properly framed in the video. Having your screen off to the side, instead of straight ahead can also help in feeling as if you are in the next room and not “on stage.”
Consider the room you’re in, where the camera is positioned, and whether an external keyboard could create distance or flexibility. For example, an external camera farther away from the screen will allow you to pace or doodle in virtual meetings just like in real ones. And of course, turning your video off periodically during meetings is good just to give yourself a brief, nonverbal rest. Allowing some “audio only” time gives you a respite from having to be nonverbally active and being seen—like a live performer walking off stage for a brief moment. Taking a break works wonders.