For those confined to their homes lately, chatting by video has become a crucial way to stay in touch from afar. Platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Skype can be used to hold work meetings remotely, catch up with friends and family, or even celebrate a birthday.
But for all its benefits, our reliance upon video during isolation has spawned a surprising new problem: Being on so many video conferences is exhausting. That’s because many of the nonverbal cues that we typically rely upon during in-person conversations—eye contact, subtle shifts that indicate someone is about to speak—are out the window, says Laura Dudley, a behavior analyst at Northeastern University.
The phenomenon has become known as Zoom fatigue, and Dudley, who is an associate clinical professor and director of the applied behavior analysis programs, says she’s experienced it herself.
“At one point I was using five different video platforms to keep up with work, classes, and family and friends—my head was spinning,” she says.
And, even if you’re only using one platform, missing those nonverbal cues can be taxing on our brainpower, Dudley says.
Have you noticed that it’s impossible to maintain eye contact with someone over video? In order to provide eye contact to the person (or people) on your screen, you need to look at your camera. In order to receive it, you need to look at their eyes on your screen.
“You might find yourself toggling back and forth between your webcam and the other person, but this is not the same as sustained, joint eye contact between two people,” Dudley says. “And keep in mind that the other person is probably doing the same toggling.”
You may also have experienced long periods of silence during which no one is talking, followed by people talking all at once, over each other.
During in-person conversations, a person’s gestures—such as a sharp intake of breath, leaning forward, or making eye contact with someone—indicate to us that they’re about to speak, Dudley says. During a video call with a dozen people, such cues are lost, leading to disjointed conversation, or people opting not to speak at all, she says.
The physical separation also makes video calls challenging, as there may be something happening off screen that’s affecting a person’s behavior on screen, Dudley says.
“It’s important to note that while we are sharing a conversation, we are not sharing physical space together,” she says. “A piece of the puzzle may be missing for you, so to speak.”
Many video-calling platforms show a person’s own face in addition to those of the people with whom they’re speaking. This has the effect of “putting a giant mirror in front of you during a meeting,” Dudley says. And, without being able to establish eye contact, it’s hard to know when people are and aren’t looking at you. As such, people are spending a lot of time worrying about and checking whether they look approachable and professional, she says.
“It’s draining to feel like you have to be ‘on’ for the entire meeting,” Dudley says.
Finally, relying upon video calls for work may make it difficult to enjoy using them to relax and catch up with family and friends after work. The challenge can be explained by a behavioral principle called satiation, Dudley says.
The term refers to the overconsumption of a reinforcer that leads to that reinforcer losing its value. If you normally logged on to Zoom to relax and chat with long-distance friends, but now use the platform throughout the day to join stressful meetings at work, the platform loses its value as a reinforcer. Rather than seeking out opportunities to Zoom with friends and family, you may find yourself avoiding those opportunities at the end of the day.
“We used to take breaks from people by spending time on our gadgets,” Dudley says. “Now, we take breaks from our gadgets by seeking out real, live human connection.”
There is some good news, though. Dudley has tips for managing Zoom fatigue:
- Disconnect when you need to.
- If you can, schedule time in between virtual meetings. Figure out what you need in that moment and do that. If you need time alone, take it. If you need time with a real, live person, seek out the opportunity while keeping safe. If you just need to move around a bit, do that.
- Practice mindfulness. Meditate. Do yoga.
- Have compassion for yourself and for others.
- Establish daily routines. Your day should be different from your evening, and your weekday should be different from your weekend.
“When your meeting ends, ask yourself what you need,” Dudley says, “and don’t forget to show yourself some compassion.”