Did you know there’s a scientific reason behind your zoom fatigue? It’s not just a cousin to quarantine fatigue after all. Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford published the first peer-reviewed article psychologically deconstructing Zoom fatigue.
We wrote on video conference camera tips back in spring 2020. With Bailenson’s study, it seems like a good time to adjust those tips to help you fight zoom fatigue.*
The most important bit of info? Don’t sit so close to your camera that your face takes up the whole video box. That’s the biggest takeaway here, but let’s get into the reasoning behind it.
What Is Zoom Fatigue?
Originally, we tried to replicate in-person meetings by prioritizing simulated eye contact over video. It’s natural to look at the faces on our screen, but that gives the effect of looking down from your colleagues’ point of view. On the other hand, looking at the camera makes others think you’re looking at them directly, but it’s strange because normally in a real room, we look only at the person speaking. Trying to find a happy medium typically leads to us leaning in, filling the entire camera space with our faces. Lovely as your visage may be, this actually triggers a neurological fight-or-flight response.
Sustained eye contact is intense, and our brains don’t like it; they also don’t like being up close and personal (even virtually) with people. A bunch of faces in a grid all staring at you naturally fuels anxiety. In person, we’re not that close to each other.
"From an evolutionary standpoint, if there was a very large human face close by to you, and it was staring right in your eyes, you were likely going to engage in conflict or mating. Neither responses are a good fit for a work meeting," Bailenson told Insider.
Our brains interpret the proximity as a threat, triggering fight or flight. This is particularly true for anyone with anxiety which, let’s be real, is all of us right now. Proximity causes the brain to release stress hormones and neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. High cortisol levels in the bloodstream due to stress make your body overwhelmingly fatigued, regardless of how much sleep you get. Chronic fatigue can further exacerbate anxiety, depression, and pretty much every other psychological side effect the human race suffers during a pandemic.
On the other hand, a “safe” distance from faces creates a positive reaction. Humans need social stimulation, and face-to-face contact releases dopamine and oxytocin because connection to other humans is so important. So if you’ve noticed worsening concentration, heightened stress, and fatigue affecting your work life, go ahead and blame Zoom fatigue. However, it’s not the technology that’s to blame—it’s how we use it. And that’s easily changed.
4 Zoom Fatigue Causes and Their Solutions
Much like Bailenson, we’re not trying to vilify video conferencing tools. That would be a bit counterproductive! Instead, we want to share ways to limit their effects, and hopefully help us all lower our cortisol levels while keeping our remote meetings on track. You already know the ground rules for video conferencing like a pro in terms of setup; now let’s talk about the four main factors Bailenson identified behind video call fatigue.
1. Extended, Close-Up Eye Contact Isn’t Normal
As Bailenson described, extreme proximity to another person or persons is usually reserved for distinctly non-work-appropriate situations. So when we’re sitting in front of a screen filled up with one or many peoples’ faces knowing fisticuffs and intimacy aren’t on the table, we feel overly stressed.
Fortunately, this is very easily fixed. Sit farther back from your camera. Don’t have the video software in full screen, or even make the window a much smaller portion of your screen. Opt for an external camera or keyboard so that you can situate yourself farther away.
2. Video Calls Have a Higher Cognitive Load
Think about regular in-person conversations. We engage in loads of subconscious nonverbal cues, both giving and receiving. Over video, we actively exaggerate those motions, which as insignificant as it may sound, takes a lot of cognitive effort.
Again, this has a supremely simple solution: Turn off your camera! Bailenson elaborates:
“This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen, so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”
3. Constantly Seeing Yourself Is Exhausting
Even if you personally identify with Narcissus, we all have a limit on how much we like to see ourselves. Unlike in-person meetings, video conferencing means we see ourselves throughout the day. We’re a self-criticizing species; it’s why we don’t walk around with a mirror in front of us at all times (selfies aside).
If your platform of choice has the option, click the button that hides your self view once you’ve confirmed your video works. Or turn your feed off for a bit if your face isn’t vital to the meeting.
4. You’re Sitting Still for too Long
Typically during phone calls and in-person chats, we’re moving around. It turns out this actually helps cognitive function! Unfortunately, moving about doesn’t work for video calls, particularly if you’re in a bunch of virtual meetings all day, which means you’re sitting unnaturally still for a long time. Any employees with ADHD know too well how agonizing this is, and this far into the pandemic everyone else is well aware as well.
Apply the same solution for close-up eye contact in video calls here: External keyboards or cameras allow you to set up your video call with more space. That way you can take notes and doodle and fidget as you would in the office without distracting your colleagues too much.
*Quick note: Obviously, we’re not Zoom—we’re OnSIP. But much as “Google” became the vernacular synonym for a web search, the overwhelming use of Zoom during the pandemic has turned it into a similar term for video conferencing at large. For the sake of familiar terminology from the zeitgeist over quarantine (not to mention that “video conferencing fatigue” is a bit of a mouthful), we’re sticking with Bailenson’s choice of “Zoom fatigue” as an umbrella term for the effects of video calls.