Why Video Calls Are so Exhausting, and How to Avoid 'Zoom Fatigue'
Many factors contribute to why video conferences have become so overwhelming and exhausting, but there are things we can do to ease the stress. RichLegg / E+ / Getty Images
During this anxious and self-isolated time, video conferencing has allowed life to adapt and continue on. School has gone digital, employees check in remotely with their teams and virtual dance parties are all the rage.
Critical to all this "normalcy" during such an abnormal time are video conferencing software like Zoom, the brand often used as shorthand to describe video conferencing technologies in general. Other popular options include GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, UberConference, Skype and Google Hangouts.
So Why Are We Tired?
"It's Zoom fatigue," reported DigiDay. "As millions of people stay indoors due to the coronavirus outbreak, business and pleasure [have] both moved to the virtual realm. That's meant that nearly every single interaction most people are having is happening online — and whether it's because of its ease of use or its ensuing ubiquity, it's mostly happening on Zoom."
USA Today described the new form of exhaustion as "the feeling of tiredness, anxiousness or worry with yet another video call."
"I'm feeling more drained at the end of the day versus our days in the office," said ad agency president Erin Riley to DigiDay. "It all starts to blur together," Riley added, describing her ninth — or so she thinks — Zoom meeting of the day.
"When we're on all these videos calls all day long, we're kind of chained to a screen," said Suzanne Degges-White, a licensed counselor and chair of counseling and counselor education at Northern Illinois University, to USA Today. "It's just psychologically off-putting. I've got to show up again but the thing is, we're not really showing up anywhere," she said.
Many factors contribute to why video conferences have become so overwhelming and exhausting, but there are things we can do to ease the stress.
Poor sound quality is one of the biggest mistakes in virtual working — whether with video or without, reported Psychology Today.
"If it takes effort to hear people speak, the game is up," the article noted. "Invest in sound technology so that brains, wherever they are, can [focus] on each other's ideas, not on the intrusive thought, 'When will the sound get any better?'"
"Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you become anxious about the technology," Italian management expert Gianpiero Petriglieri told BBC. These unintended silences make us subconsciously uncomfortable.
The sheer format of video calls also creates an impersonal communication experience. Degges-White described it as creating a structure to conversation like email where one person speaks and everyone waits to reply, reported USA Today.
"That's not normally the way we do social interactions," she said. "It's not that easy give and take." Side conversations are lost and more reserved participants may never get a word in, reported USA Today. Speakers also miss out on verbal cues and affirmations from listeners who are often all muted.
Up to 85 percent of communication is made up of body language, reported Psychology Today, which gives context and depth to verbal communication being shared. Much of that gets lost or distorted in video communication, reported USA Today.
Video conferences also require more focus than face-to-face chats, Petriglieri told BBC, because we have to work harder to process non-verbal cues we do catch, like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language. Paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. "You cannot relax into the conversation naturally," he said to BBC.
Mental focus is also an issue, either being too much or too little on video calls.
"There is a different quality to our attention when we are online," wrote mindfulness expert Steven Hickman in Mindful. "It's this pressure to really be on and be responsive," said Vaile Wright, the American Psychological Association's director of clinical research and quality, reported USA Today.
Marissa Shuffler, a workplace well-being professor at Clemson University, noted that our "awareness of being watched" when we're physically on camera adds stress. She said, "When you're on a video conference, you know everybody's looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful," reported BBC.
"On a video call, it feels necessary to be smiling all the time. It's just the sense that our words can't stand on their own. And as a black woman, I need to not be seen as angry, or just have resting bitch face. So I'm smiling. And I'm tired," Kat Vellos, a UX designer, told DigiDay.
Another tired video conference participant called this forced facade "Wearing that 'happy girl' mask," reported Psychology Today. "In the real work world, we can find moments where we can let our mask drop, but during interminable work meetings, we feel like we have to keep on that mask as long as our video image is on the screen," the participant said.
There are also background concerns about not turning on the video screen. Leaving a profile picture or avatar up with your camera off can lead to being viewed as "absent," even if the microphone is on and you're actively contributing to the conversation, noted Psychology Today.
Riley told DigiDay, if someone doesn't have their video on, or something else is going on, there's a strange unsaid "What are you hiding?" feeling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many are totally distracted on group video calls.
"Frankly, people try to multitask," author Celeste Headlee told Salon, "So while you have Zoom open, you also have Twitter open, and 90 other tabs and your email, and your cell phone is sitting there. Your brain is running from one thing to another, to another, to another, to another. And it's stressing you out."
The Convivial Society noted, "It's especially exhausting to be continuously dropping a conversational thread and picking it up again. Something as seemingly benign as a notification flashing on the screen, even if we don't attend to it for more than a split second, can throw us off the thread of thought, and the momentary work of trying to pick it up again takes a mental toll."
Wired reported that despite the temptation, you can't multitask without it being "glaringly obvious." This means that video calls are also more time-consuming, adding to the stress of already-busy schedules.
Shuffler told BBC that often we feel obligated into these video calls. She queried whether we are joining the endless cooking, birthday parties, catch-ups and virtual happy hours because we want to, or because we feel like we ought to. Obligations, she noted, means more time that we're "on" as opposed to truly relaxing and being ourselves.
Big group calls can feel particularly performative, Petriglieri warned the BBC. "People like watching television because you can allow your mind to wander – but a large video call 'is like you're watching television and television is watching you,'" he noted.
The branding of a video call as fun or social also doesn't erase years of conditioning, explained Petriglieri. "It doesn't matter whether you call it a virtual happy hour, it's a meeting, because mostly we are used to using these tools for work," he said to BBC.
"With no delineation of work and home, most people I know are on calls all day," Reema Mitra, a New York brand strategist told OneZero. This has caused many to feel the need to be more available and accessible to work than if they had set hours at a separate workplace, a Japanese study recently found, reported Psychology Today.
The blurred boundaries affect our own personal health and well-being, adding to general anxiety and potentially "obsessing" over work responsibilities, Psychology Today reported. Psychology Today noted that without commutes, water breaks and chats with co-workers, many are finding their bodies beat down by the constant video calls. We are spending more time sitting and in front of our screens than before, which takes a physical toll in addition to the mental stresses.
- Limit video calls to ones that are truly necessary. Make turning video-on optional. Use your phone when necessary, allowing yourself to move around, doodle or sit outside in the sun, suggested Psychology Today.
- Turn on your camera when you join a meeting so others can see you and "know" you're there, but turn it off after that. Turn it on to speak, but off when you're listening, suggested Psychology Today.
- Take some time during meetings to check in with others before getting to work. "Spend some time to actually check into people's well-being," Shuffler told BBC. "It's a way to reconnect us with the world, and to maintain trust and reduce fatigue and concern."
- Don't multitask. Treat it like a real conversation, and divert your eyes if needed. Get up and get water or look away from your screen, suggested The Convivial Society.
- Wright suggested taking breaks in between calls to allow our brains to switch gears, and creating a separate physical space where you take work video calls and personal video calls, reported USA Today.
- Respect that workdays begin and workdays end, meaning shut down your computer screen (before re-opening it if you're going to start surfing, Zooming, gaming, etc.) and change into casual clothing, said Psychology Today. "This means that you should get out of your jammies in the morning before you begin your work shift, by the way."
The barrage of life lived through Zoom has become, for many, a "physically, cognitively, and emotionally taxing experience" as our minds try to make sense of this new reality, reported The Convivial Society. The solution is not to avoid video-conferencing altogether, but to recognize its benefits and limitations as we consciously strive to create healthier relationships with our screens and connect to the people behind them.
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By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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