If you haven't experienced "Zoom fatigue" — that special brand of exhaustion that comes from having too many virtual meetings — consider yourself lucky. People who work from home have likely experienced it for as long as video conferencing has existed. However, the problem reared its ugly head for the masses in 2020 when the pandemic shut down workplaces, and millions upon millions of people were forced to collaborate with their colleagues virtually.
At the height of the pandemic, a reported 300 million people were using Zoom daily.
A new set of symptoms, including exhaustion, eye strain, insomnia, headaches, restlessness, and an inability to concentrate, began to emerge (or worsen) for many workers. Collectively, we began to recognize what became known as "Zoom fatigue." And, for women, the symptoms hit hard.
A new breed of burnout
Here's the real rub: Even pre-pandemic, many employees attended 62 meetings per month, which somehow amounted to 31 hours of wasted work time monthly. When all those meetings moved online, a new set of problems emerged.
"For some industries — like the tech sector — the shift to online work has been second nature," explains Thomas Cooper, Ph.D., a professor on the Faculty of Business Administration at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. Employees have known how to adapt, and it's been business as usual, just on a screen. "But for other industries, such as public sector jobs where the expectation is generally on-site work from 9 am to 5 pm, it can be a far more difficult adjustment."
That's because "computer-mediated communication" is a less natural way of communicating — especially for women. Unlike in-person conversations, Zoom calls can include long, stilted pauses and awkward interruptions, which interferes with our natural communication patterns and requires us to listen more actively. Video conferencing also makes it harder to pick up on non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language, especially tough on women who tend to use a more emotive and dynamic communication style. Consequently, interacting on Zoom takes more effort to make a point. It also demands more concentration since micro dalliances like checking your email or phone don't play well on screen.
With numerous studies showing that burnout can contribute to Type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, coronary heart disease, and mental health issues, Zoom fatigue is worth mitigating.
5 ways to reduce 'Zoom fatigue'
Here's the good news: You might not be able to reduce the time you spend in meetings (or make them more productive), but making a few minor tweaks to your Zoom routine can render them less taxing. This alone can have a positive impact on your professional performance and overall well-being.
So next time a meeting invite arrives in your inbox, try these:
1. Know what to expect
Everything is easier when you know what to expect. So, if there isn't a timeframe mentioned in the invite, ask the meeting organizer in advance how long the event might last so you can plan your work time around it. Knowing the expected duration can also make it easier to double down for that time period and then refresh afterward with a break.
2. Include a mini-break
A general rule of thumb is that 20 minutes is about how long most folks can stay focused on a video call. So, if you're the meeting's organizer, build in a five-minute break before the half-hour mark so your team can catch their breath. Another tool to help ease the exhaustion: Adding in a few polls or moving participants to break-out rooms with more active interaction.
If you're not the organizer but are close with your manager, maybe shoot them a quick email in advance asking if there might be a few moments to recharge in between segments. Or volunteer to come up with a poll or interactive ice-breaker exercise for the break.
3. Reduce distractions
Although it can feel like sending a quick text or checking your email is a brief respite during a long meeting, small actions like this make you lose focus, which can make catching up on the conversation take more energy. If possible, power through until the end of the meeting and then take a quick break to deal with incoming text messages and emails before refocusing on work.
4. Limit your time online
Working remotely can mean fewer opportunities to connect socially with colleagues, which is a total drag. But if you're already depleted from intense online interactions, sticking around for extra screen time or scheduling virtual social events, like happy hours, will just make things worse. If possible, suggest an after-hours meet-up for your team at a park, or meet up one-on-one or in small groups for a walk to catch up.
5. Use old-school technology
Zoom and other video conferencing platforms are all the rage because of their advantages and because they're still relatively new, but consider getting back to basics whenever possible. If the call doesn't need to include video, let your team know well in advance that "no camera" is an option. If a matter can be discussed by phone, save other participants the stress of feeling like they need to make their workspace and wardrobe camera-ready.
"Zoom can be great for productivity," Dr. Cooper says, "But like everything, it needs to be looked at in terms of cost and benefits." Because when the costs outweigh the advantages, it's time to make some changes.