Introducing The Zoom Fatigue Phenomenon And Why It’s So Exhausting

Why are video chats so... tiring?

For the first few weeks of social distancing measures, it seemed like video calling was going to be an adequate replacement for real-life connection. You could meet your colleagues in your pyjama bottoms during the day, do a quick Zoom quiz in the evening, then spend the rest of the night shooting the breeze on HouseParty. Some semblance of a ‘normal life’ was able to continue.

However, the novelty wore off pretty quickly, leaving a strange sort of conversation in its place. Many people are finding themselves utterly drained by the endless video calls -the phenomenon has even been given a name: Zoom fatigue, after the application that facilitates so many of these virtual meetups. It doesn’t discriminate between the business and the personal; you can be just as easily worn out by a supposedly ‘fun’ call as you can by a work meeting. It affects introverts and extroverts both.

But what is causing this fatigue? Is chatting over Zoom inherently different to having a real-life conversation? Experts think so. “We’re having to think about our communications more online. It’s not automatic in the way that it is in traditional face-to-face conversation, and it’s exhausting having to put so much thought into it,” says Mark Smyth, clinical psychologist and president of the Psychological Society of Ireland. “This is new to us all. We’re making up the rules as we go along, or assuming what [these rules] might be.”

Think about it. You could be on a Zoom call with six other people, and only one person can speak at a time if they are to be heard. The conversation flows differently as a result, with everyone trying to figure out when they can jump in, un-muting or repeating themselves, speaking louder to make up for dodgy internet connections… Any silences seem to stretch out for an eternity, been though real-life conversations are filled with such pauses and no one bats an eyelid.

Then there’s the small matter of where to look on the screen. Try as we may pick one of the squares in front of us to gaze upon, our eyes are inevitably dragged back to our own little box. Why can’t we stop looking at ourselves? Well, it could be because we rarely see ourselves from this perspective. Are we looking our best? Is everyone watching us, and if so, are we ‘performing’ as we should be?

“We can have a lot of people staring back at us at the same time – we are literally under constant scrutiny,” says Mark. “If we’re on mute, people are only looking at our facial reactions. So how is our face supposed to look for a one to a two-hour meeting? Are we allowed to smile, yawn, look away… What does my interested and attentive face look like?”

Considering all that, it really is no wonder that we’re struggling to find the natural beats of in-person interaction over video chat. But if you’re worried that Zoom fatigue will do away with the precious fragments of a social or working life you’ve managed you’ve managed to retain, know that there are ways to combat it. “I think we need to remember that some social etiquette rules are still the same, irrespective of whether it’s on or offline,” Mark points out. “If in a meeting we’re struggling and need a break, we might excuse ourselves to go to the bathroom, stretching our legs at the same time and giving our brains a brief respite from the concentration we require in the meeting.”

“Another recommendation would be to plan a break into the meeting from the outset, so everyone knows that after an hour, there will be a 15 minute break. You also have to ask yourself, do I always have to have my camera on? Perhaps take camera breaks and just listen to the audio from the meeting so you get a break from feeling under scrutiny.”

COVID-19 has forced us to adapt to new norms extremely quickly, and we can’t be too hard on ourselves for not taking to these changes like ducks to water. Hopefully, when we get to the other side, we’ll know what we want to keep from this experience. Perhaps you’re talking to some friends more now than you did before, and you’d like to continue making the time to check in. Or maybe you’ve found a new way of working that suits you a little better.

“On an interpersonal level this has shown us that in the midst of our busy lives, we can still make time socially to connect with other,” says Mark. “Video chats will never be a replacement for meeting someone in person, but I think they are a useful add on.” For now, do what you need to do to keep the Zoom fatigue at bay, even if that means saying no to the 15th quiz of the week. They’ll understand.