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Zoom fatigue_Dr Kristy Goodwin

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How to handle Zoom fatigue

Like many of us, I’ve spent hours over the last few weeks on Zoom calls. There have been plenty of work Zoom calls, the delivery of virtual masterclasses via Zoom, plus Facetime calls with friends (and kids’ friends) and Houseparty and Skype calls with family. At first, there was a  novelty associated with connecting with colleagues, clients, family and friends via video, as we’d been thrust into isolation. But then the fatigue set in.

Who else has noticed that they feel depleted after a full day of video-conferencing calls? Zoom fatigue is real. 

Microsoft has conducted a number of studies that confirm that we find remote meetings more mentally exhausting. One study involving data from EEG machines and heart rate data showed that mental fatigue sets in around 30-40 minutes into a virtual meeting and stress levels set in after around 2 hours into the day.

Given that we’re now spending more and more time on video conferencing calls each day as we work from home, many employees are wondering why they’re feeling exhausted after several video calls, when their workday has traditionally been punctuated with in-person meetings. Their workload hasn’t necessarily increased, yet the fatigue and exhaustion has been noticeable.

Now, part of this fatigue can be attributed to the stressful situation many of us find ourselves in as we deal with a global health crisis. Stress and anxiety can leave us feeling tired.  However, video-conferencing calls are also place additional demands on our brains and can also contribute to feelings of exhaustion.

Why do we feel exhausted after video calls?

// Impression management– this is the first time in history where we see our physical selves interacting in social settings. So we may start to observe some of our physical features, unusual hand gestures or idiosyncrasies that we’d otherwise be oblivious to in a physical context.

// Additional visual stimuli to process– Let’s face it, who hasn’t been intrigued to see inside their colleagues’ homes? We’re continuously processing  a multitude of visual cues that wouldn’t happen if we were sitting in a meeting room or cafe with our colleagues.  This is taxing for our brain and depletes our energy supply, glucose.  Let’s hope you don’t have to process extra visual stimuli like this.

// Extra demands on your attention- When we’re using video conferencing there are extra demands on your attention. This means that your brain’s prefrontal cortex has to work harder to stop you from becoming distracted. 

On a conference call you may be concentrating on your colleague’s post-Coronavirus sales forecast when another colleague’s child enters the background of their Zoom frame. You may even be tempted to open up email and process a few on the call, while giving a token nod every now and then to indicate that you’re listening. Or let’s be honest, we might also be tempted to pick up our phones if in close proximity.

You have to use your prefrontal cortex to stop you tuning out to what funny things their children might be doing and focus on your colleague’s point about. This isn’t easy, as our brains are primed for novelty (we like new and interesting things) and it is also a depleting task. Our prefrontal cortex quickly burns through glucose when our attention is split (this is one of the many costs of multitasking).

Video conferencing calls can also be notoriously loud and unstructured, as people try to simultaneously interact and contribute. This is in part due to the fact that we’re navigating this new technology and also it’s because of the absence of other visual cues or gestures that we’d typically utilise during in-person meetings that would signal that it’s okay to interject.

// Your brain is working harder in the absence of important social cues– video conferencing is like watching the Brady Bunch intro video. You only ever see your colleague’s head or the upper half of their body in most instances. To compensate we focus more intently on the available visual cues to help our brains process information that we would otherwise obtain from their body language or posture. So other vital social cues such as body language and hand gestures are missed (unless they gesticulate in front of their face). 

So what can we do, apart from declining video-conferencing calls?

// Select speaker view- help your brain only process essential visual stimuli by selecting speaker view instead of gallery view, if it’s available on your video conferencing software. This stops your brain from processing superfluous visual stimulus.

// Keep them short and sweet– one way to help you sustain your focus and stop you feeling depleted after video conference calls is to shorten the duration of video calls. Just as many in-person meetings go for much longer than necessary, so too can video calls.  Organisations such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook are utilising ‘speedy meetings’ in their calendar settings. Employees can now have the default meeting setting limited to 50 minutes (instead of 60 minutes) or 25 minutes (instead of 30 minutes). Based on Parkinson’s Law, that work expands to fill the time available, speedy meetings can help promote shorter, sharper meetings. Try this with your video calls. Perhaps have shorted video calls, but have them more frequently to ensure you cover the same content with improved focus.

// Get physical before your call– exercise can help your focus and ability to stay on task. It doesn’t have to be a long jog or intense activity, but just enough movement to increase your heart rate. Perhaps it’s some squats, chair dips, walking or running out to your letter box. Why does this work? Exercise improves your alertness and prompts your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to work harder to resist distractions and your attention improves. We also know that exercise spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus, which helps us with memory retention.

// Avoid multitasking– it will further compound the problem of feeling exhausted. Multitasking burns through glucose and releases cortisol, the stress hormone. Try to stay focused on the call without giving into other digital temptations or distractions. This may mean putting your phone on Do Not Disturb mode and/or moving it so it’s out of your line of sight.

// Plan your call schedule– Be careful what you schedule after your video calls, knowing that it’s likely you’ll feel depleted. Could you use post video-call time to do some shallow or light work? Could it be a better time to clear your inbox or do some basic administration? Could you batch some of your calls, with adequate break time between them for restoration, so you can possibly have one or even a couple of meeting-free days. This is a strategy I recommend to clients even during ‘typical’ work arrangements. Why? There’s a phenomenon called ‘meeting anticipation output decline’. A study from Ohio State University found that employees completed 22% less work before scheduled meetings they did when there were no meetings on the horizon. So it appears it’s not just our meetings (either in-person or virtual) meetings that rob us of our productivity, but also the mere placement of them looming in our calendar.

// Establish call protocol- to counteract the overbearing and confusing noise that can result when multiple attendees try to speak all at once, have one person who’s responsible for leading the call. Attendees can use an agreed-upon hand gesture (even as simple as raising their hand) to signal that they want to speak. Set up your Zoom call so that all attendees are automatically muted when they enter the room, or have a policy that attendees are expected to mute themselves upon entry to the call. Equally, ask attendees to turn off their camera if there are distracting elements in the background, or if they need to leave their station to go to the bathroom, or attend to their kids. Again, this will reduce the visual stimuli that can distract colleagues.

I provide simple, science-backed solutions to help employees develop healthy digital behaviours whilst working remotely. I offer two virtual masterclasses to corporate clients- find out more by clicking the link below.

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