One of the more timely (if not ironic) sessions held at the recent virtual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology was on “Zoom fatigue,” the feeling of exhaustion and burnout after increased time spent video conferencing.
Despite the name, this form of virtual fatigue can occur with any platform, including Skype, Facetime, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, and others. But the benefits of this technology, whatever you call it, can’t be underestimated: Through the pandemic it has allowed many of us to continue working, receive medical care, go to school, and even socialize.
“In December of 2019, there were 10 million video conferencing calls taking place,” said Dr. Belinda A. Savage-Edwards, a neurologist from Huntsville, Alabama. “Five months later, in May 2020, there were 300 million Zoom calls daily.”
Despite the benefits, this increased time in front of a screen can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. Our limbs feel heavy, our eyes droop, and we may be unable to complete our regular daily activities.
We can also become forgetful, Savage-Edwards said, have difficulty concentrating, and have mood changes. The mental exhaustion can result in headaches, difficulty sleeping, and fatigue.
Jeremy N. Bailenson, the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, believes that design flaws in video conferencing platforms are the cause of Zoom fatigue. He recently published his arguments in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
Platforms like Zoom create “nonverbal overload,” he writes, through excessive amounts of:
- close-up eye gaze
- cognitive load
- increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself
- constraints on physical mobility
Bailenson urges companies to design better platforms to lessen these issues, and some have begun to take up the challenge. A recent article in the New Yorker describes efforts by companies like High Fidelity, which offers audio-only meetings, where your avatar can mingle with others in a virtual world.
Even if newer technology like this isn’t right for you, there are things you can do to lessen the stressful effects of your current platform. Bailenson recommends reducing the size of your screen; turning off self-view; periodically hiding the video feed, and switching to audio-only so you can move around.
You can also take Stanford’s Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale. Dr. Savage-Edwards did and said she scored in the 59th percentile, prompting her to start incorporating Bailenson’s suggestions as well as others.
Her biggest recommendation? Self-care, and for this she has coined the phrase “healthy habits for sweet dreams,” with DREAMS serving as an acronym:
- D is for diet. Eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- R is for respirations. Take deep breaths while sitting throughout the day.
- E is for exercise. Exercise at least 150 minutes a week.
- A is for altruism. Volunteer to hand out food boxes or administer vaccines.
- M is for mindfulness. Try to stay in the moment.
- S is for sleep. Get the hours you know you need.
Like it or not, “remoting in” is here to stay, Savage-Edwards said, and for it to be sustainable we need to address the issue of Zoom fatigue. Sometimes this will mean skipping the video all together and picking up the phone instead.