Nonverbal Overload May Be Causing Zoom Fatigue, Experts Say

It’s not just you

Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that Zoom fatigue can be turning professionals off from videoconferencing. 
  • Simple changes like audio-only calls and using external cameras for physical mobility can combat the fatigue.
  • Since there aren’t many published studies on Zoom fatigue specifically, the phenomenon is still evolving.
Someone sitting at a laptop in a home office, rubbing their neck as if fatigued.
Nenad Stojkovic / Flickr

Too many videoconferences over the past year may be causing what some researchers are calling "Zoom fatigue."

A recent study published by Stanford University communication professor Jeremy Bailenson finds that too much Zoom use can cause fatigue. The reasons cited include: excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility.

Since Bailenson studies how people interact virtually, his arguments are based on academic theory and research. He broke down some of his findings in a peer-reviewed article and shared some of the psychological consequences of Zoom fatigue, theories he plans to test further. 

"One unintended consequence of a free, robust video platform is that it makes it harder to say no to meetings that you would have not been able to attend in person," Bailenson told Lifewire in an email interview.

Bailenson’s Arguments for Zoom Fatigue

Bailenson was compelled to study Zoom fatigue after taking part in a video interview with a BBC reporter in March 2020. He said he had an "aha moment" when he realized how inconvenient it was for him to have to hop on a video call for a simple interview. 

I take a lot of Zoom calls with video off (as mandatory for all participants to leverage the screen-share function)...

"About 10 minutes into the Zoom, I realized that there was no reason to use video," he said. "After the call ended, I immediately wrote an op-ed on Zoom fatigue that was published a few days later in the Wall Street Journal."

Zoom fatigue can be described as tiredness or burnout from the excessive use of the virtual platform. The pandemic caused the majority of the world to start working and interacting online more, mainly through videoconferencing.

While some studies find that video communication saves energy, it’s taking a big mental health toll on many professionals, who just don’t want to turn on their computer cameras anymore. 

Bailenson has four main suggestions about what users and tech companies can do to end this problem of burnout.

To avoid the high-intensity eye contact, he suggests taking Zoom out of full-screen mode and reducing the window size. To avoid constantly staring back at yourself, which some people find uncomfortable, he suggests hiding self-view. As for physical mobility, Bailenson suggests being more cognizant of the rooms in which video conferences take place. (For instance, Zoom users could consider using an external camera further away from the screen to allow for pacing and movement in a room.)

Closeup of an External webcam mounted on a computer screen.
Walder Brandt / Unsplash

Lastly, sometimes people just need a mental break. Bailenson suggests users incorporate some audio-only meetings into their routines, so they can turn their cameras off and turn their bodies away from the computer while they communicate.  

Tech Companies Can Help

The growing conversation around Zoom fatigue is becoming more directed at tech companies, calling on them to rework their platforms as users increase.

Other studies align with Bailenson’s arguments, and talk about how the fatigue comes from how users process information over video calls. If tech companies like Zoom can implement some changes, like keeping spatial arrays consistent, Bailenson said, the rate at which users are feeling that fatigue might go down. 

"Implement a ‘maximum head size’ on the grid. In this way, one never is close-up to a huge head staring at them," Bailenson suggested about some changes for virtual video conferencing platforms.

"This is easy, given that computer vision algorithms already know where your head is; otherwise, they would not be able to change the virtual background."

Combat Videoconferencing Overload

Returning to the office is still up in the air for most people, so professionals will continue to use virtual platforms to communicate with their coworkers and customers for at least the time being. Still, avoiding Zoom fatigue can be simple.

A young business person in a home office, talking on the phone with a laptop in their lap. / Unsplash

For conversations that don’t require video, consider taking phone calls instead, and even implement a walk in there to increase physical mobility. Make sure breaks are worked into your day, and maybe even block off time to not do video calls all together.

"I have cut my video calls from about nine hours per day to about 1.5 hours per day," Bailenson said. "I take a lot of Zoom calls with video off (as mandatory for all participants to leverage the screen-share function), take a lot of very short phone calls, and 'just say no' to many meetings."

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