We’re approaching a full year into this pandemic that has utterly changed the way we live and work, and one struggle that has remained consistent throughout for so many of us is the exhaustion that stems from using video conferencing as a primary method of communication.
On top of all the “regular anxiety” everyone’s feeling, there’s now an artificial communication barrier between you, your loved ones and your coworkers.
“Zoom fatigue” is an especially odd type of dragged-down feeling, because at first blush, it makes no sense. You might think that because all you have to do is switch on your laptop camera, these types of virtual meetings and events should be easy, low-energy, and even more fun to attend than in-person ones. But the truth is that these meetings are far more draining, as anyone who has experienced video conferencing fatigue knows.
In my work as a wellness coach, I’ve provided coaching sessions via video conference for years along with the typical in-person sessions. But when COVID hit, of course I went fully virtual, and I’ve really struggled with the emotional energy toll it takes on me.
However, it is the safest way to continue seeing loved ones and getting necessary work done. And luckily, it’s possible to avoid some of the worst effects of video conferencing. Here’s how.
1. Rely heavily on body language
Part of the reason Zoom, Google Meet, Facetime and the like are so exhausting is because humans don’t just use words and two-dimensional pictures of our faces to communicate. Instead, we lean on a rich host of body language cues and motions to communicate with and understand one another.
One study out of Princeton University demonstrated that people are actually far better at perceiving others’ positive and negative reactions when referencing body language instead of facial expressions. When you don’t have that information, you have to work twice as hard to understand what people are really saying.
To avoid fatigue, there’s a twofold strategy. First, you should try to exaggerate your own gestures and body language. If you can, show more of your body on camera to make it easier for people to glean what you’re feeling. Not only will this help others with their fatigue, but it’ll minimize the amount of misunderstandings and interruptions you have to deal with as well.
Think about how theatre actors know to put on heavily dramaticized makeup and exaggerated motions to make sure everyone in the audience can see their exaggerated expressions. Take a page out of their book and make your own body language as clear as you can. This allows you to conserve energy for part two of this strategy, which is of course to pay hyper-close attention to that body language of others.
It’s so easy to forget to pay attention to these few cues, which will leave your brain working overtime to figure out the best interpretation. To minimize the amount of work you have to do, ensure that you pay extremely close attention to the few cues you do get. Is someone opening their mouth to speak? Does a head tilt convey interest or disagreement?
Remember that on a video call, you don’t even have eye contact to work with, because you have to choose between looking into the camera (which looks like eye contact to anyone who looks at you) and looking into the face of the person you’re talking to (which wouldn’t look like eye contact but does allow you to look at their face). Striving for eye contact at the expense of focusing on other cues is futile.
2. Minimize your own face
Would you ever have a conversation with someone while looking at yourself in a mirror? No, because it’s distracting to see your own face. Video conferencing is already distracting enough – not only is it exhausting to be so focused on people, but there’s always the temptation to multitask and check Twitter, emails, or your work’s messenger app.
Science agrees that looking at an image of yourself heavily affects how you interact with others. “Self-awareness research suggests that seeing oneself could induce self-consciousness and affect interaction,” writes Matthew K Miller, a University of Saskatchewan researcher.
You might not be able to control all these distractions, but you can control one.
By removing the self-view, you can give more attention to your audience and avoid exhausting yourself by switching attention between your own reflection and the conversation at hand.
3. Ensure you have a good internet connection
Not only does the lack of body language make communication much harder, but a lot of us also have to contend with poor internet connection. On one recent client call, I had to ask my client to repeat herself on more than one occasion because her connection was so laggy.
A bad internet connection could mean you’re unaware that you’re monologuing unheard by others, your video lags a second or two behind your words, or you’re interrupted or interrupting others – all unnecessary hardships that make video conferencing even tougher than it has to be.
“There’s nothing worse than being on a video conference with a poor stream. It can really distract from the purpose of the conference,” writes entrepreneur and marketer Neil Patel in his guide to video conferencing. “Everyone is worried about disconnecting and then reconnecting, hoping that fixes the issue, which wastes valuable time.”
A good internet connection is an investment worth splashing out on. It can mean the difference between a horrible meeting filled with miscommunications and a productive, enjoyable conversation.
4. Try to move
While video conferencing is tiring on its own, there’s another source of fatigue that could be compounding the problem: a sedentary work life is tied to an increase in those video conference meetings. Nowadays, you can spend the whole day sitting at your desk, without even the excuses of getting up to go to meetings, hanging out at the water cooler with coworkers, or meeting friends for a meal outside the home.
The solution is simple: reintroduce some physical activity, which is associated with about a 40% reduced risk of fatigue, according to Dr. Jena Lee’s neuropsychologically focused essay on Zoom fatigue for The Psychiatric Times.
There are a few strategies you can use. One option is to invest in a walking desk and set small goals for yourself to walk more. If you don’t have the funds, or can’t afford the distraction, you can make it a habit to make a hot drink for yourself in the kitchen before every meeting. Even taking meetings while walking around outside is a great alternative to sitting still all day long.
Any way you can do it, going into your meeting after a burst of physical activity is a great preventative method to address video conferencing fatigue.
5. When you can, say no
It’s almost a cliche, but it’s true: many meetings really could have been emails. Not everything has to be a meeting. Especially when everyone is drained from the pandemic situation as a whole, dealing with their own issues at home, and also having to navigate an unnatural interface to socialize and communicate, it makes sense to see if there’s a better way to talk.
If it’s with friends, maybe a phone call. If business, maybe that meeting really can be an email, or an asynchronous video chat.
“Every person reading this has every good reason to set boundaries in order to take care of themselves right now, including declining virtual social invitations,” writes Nicole O-Pries, a therapist at Virginia Affirming Counseling.
Her point is a good one – even though it might feel like you have no excuse to say no, the act of deliberately drawing those boundaries is likely to immensely improve your energy levels and reduce just a bit of the exhaustion you might be feeling from too many of these video calls.
Final thoughts on this necessary evil
It may not be natural, but it is necessary to use video conferencing calls to communicate and collaborate. However, it’s possible to avoid the dreaded Zoom fatigue by keeping these five tips in mind. Focus on body language, remove technological barriers out the gate, minimize your own distracting face, get as physical as you can, and, when possible, just say no without feeling guilty.