For many of us, two things have become staples of the past year: video calls and fatigue.
But have you ever wondered if maybe those two things are related? Over at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, researchers have been putting together studies measuring the “psychological and behavioral effects” of various technologies on individuals and society. Now, their founding director, Professor Jeremy Bailenson, has turned his efforts toward the current mainstay of videoconferencing.
Over the last 12 months, as we have increasingly spent time away from our coworkers, friends, and loved ones, videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Skype have become more popular than ever — and the world has become endlessly grateful for the feeling of togetherness they provide.
But what is it about these chats that can leave us feeling so exhausted? So exhausted, in fact, that it’s even birthed a new term: “Zoom fatigue.”
Well, Bailenson has been determined to find out. But first, he wanted to make it clear that it’s not his intention to defame any company. He merely hoped to find the root of the issue and see if he could dig out some easily implemented solutions, and that’s just what he did!
Here are four reasons why video chats lead to exhaustion — and four answers to those problems!
1. Extremely prolonged, close-up eye contact.
The social anxiety that comes with intense circumstances such as public speaking is constantly at play in videoconferencing. Bailenson said the reason for this is because when you’re in an in-person meeting, your eyes are not glued to any one thing. Thus, you’re able to move your attention freely. But in a video call, your eyes are fixed on each other, and you feel the weight of other people’s gazes… all the time.
Also, depending on your screen, Bailenson explained that “you’re seeing their face at a size which simulates a personal space that you normally experience when you’re with somebody intimately.”
So our brain translates this as an intense conversation, either in a negative way or an intimate one, leaving us in a “hyper-aroused state.”
The fix: Avoid the full-screen mode to minimize face sizes. You can also use an external keyboard to allow for a wider personal space bubble between yourself and the people on the call.
2. Watching yourself in real time on-screen.
The ability to watch yourself interact with others, even at a thumbnail image size, is, at its core, unnatural.
“In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly — so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback, you were seeing yourself in a mirror — that would just be crazy,” Bailenson said. “No one would ever consider that.”
Studying ourselves usually causes us to react with negative emotions, such as higher self-criticism.
The fix: Once your face is centered in the video, you can right-click on your own photo, and click the “hide self-view” button to remove the digital mirror. It may be a little scary at first, but it’s worth it!
3. A dramatic reduction in mobility.
According to Bailenson, “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively.”
But when we are on video calls, we are almost always stationary. This is especially out of the norm as we are inclined to visit with friends while on a walk or celebrate birthdays and events through physical activities, not in front of a computer.
The fix: Position the camera farther away so you have the option to walk around or even doodle mid-call, just like you might do in person. You should also allow yourself to turn off your video here and there to get a little nonverbal break.
4. An increased “cognitive load.”
When we’re interacting in person, we have grown accustomed to reading nonverbal communication without even having to think about it. But when we’re in front of a computer, we have to use more thought to interpret nonverbal cues and monitor our own.
Not only that, but we’re also balancing a million other technology-related thoughts all at the same time.
“You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up,” Bailenson explains. “That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
The fix: an “audio only” break. This is a moment of turning off your camera, yes, but it’s also about positioning yourself away from the screen “so that for a few minutes, you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”
Along with Bailenson, many other researchers have come together to develop the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale, or ZEF Scale. The scale is a list of questions intended to measure people’s videoconferencing fatigue so they can help guide technology in reducing these stressors.
On behalf of, well, the world, we are eagerly awaiting their technological breakthroughs to remove our Zoom fatigue for good!
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