Why Zoom calls are likely tiring you out, and how to fix it

February 24, 2021

Video conferencing has become a way of life, but there are psychological consequences of spending hours per day on video chat platforms. Stanford communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), has studied prolonged video chats and identified some consequences of the practice that contribute to a feeling known as “Zoom fatigue.”

The term “Zooming” has become ubiquitous and a generic verb to replace videoconferencing. Virtual meetings or Zoom calls have skyrocketed, with hundreds of millions happening daily, as social distancing protocols have kept people apart physically during the pandemic.

Bailenson highlights how current implementations of videoconferencing technologies are exhausting people and suggests simple interface changes to implement. Moreover, he provides suggestions for consumers and organisations on how to leverage the current features of videoconferencing platforms to decrease fatigue.

According to Bailenson, there are four primary reasons why video chats fatigue humans:

1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense and unnatural – in Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population. When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”

Another source of stress is that, depending on your monitor size and whether you’re using an external monitor, faces on videoconferencing calls can appear too large for comfort. When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. “What’s happening, in effect, is that you’re in this hyper-aroused state when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours.”

Bailenson recommends taking Zoom out of the full-screen option and reducing the size of the Zoom window relative to the monitor to minimise face size, and to use an external keyboard to allow an increase in the personal space bubble between oneself and others in the call.

2. Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing – Bailenson cited studies showing that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself, as there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror. “Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day, which is taxing on us.”

Bailenson recommends that platforms change the default practice of beaming the video to both self and others, when it only needs to be sent to others. Users can also use the “hide self-view” button, which one can access by right-clicking their own photo, once they see their face is framed properly in the video.

3. Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility – with videoconferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot.

Bailenson suggests people think more about whether things like an external keyboard can help create distance or flexibility. For example, an external camera farther away from the screen will allow you to pace and doodle in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones. Turning one’s video off periodically during meetings should also be the ground rule to set for group calls, just to give oneself a brief nonverbal rest.

4. The cognitive load is much higher in video chats – in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals such as gestures and nonverbal cues. “If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”

During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an “audio only” break. “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,” Bailenson said, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

The public can also complete a questionnaire to see where they land on a Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (ZEF) Scale recently developed by Stanford researchers, along with Bailenson, to help measure how much fatigue people are experiencing due to videoconferencing. The scale is a 15-item questionnaire, which is freely available, and has been tested now across five separate studies over the past year with over 500 participants. It asks questions about a person’s general fatigue, physical fatigue, social fatigue, emotional fatigue and motivational fatigue.

Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab said results from the scale can help change the technology so the stressors are reduced.

“When we first had elevators, we didn’t know whether we should stare at each other or not in that space,” Hancock explained. “We had to evolve ways to make it work for us. We’re in that era now with videoconferencing, and understanding the mechanisms will help us understand the optimal way to do things for different settings and different kinds of meetings.”

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