Zoom fatigue is a thing. If you find yourself more exhausted after hours spent staring at a screen than after working in an office and dealing with a harrowing commute, well, you're not alone. In fact, with a reported 300 million people using Zoom daily, it's no surprise that all that time online is resulting in symptoms including exhaustion, eye strain, insomnia, headaches, restlessness, and an inability to concentrate.
Asking the impossible of women
And for women, there's even more to the story. Researchers have found that Zoom fatigue hits women harder than men, which isn't surprising when looking at what's being asked of us.
First, the age-old pressure on women to conform to unattainable beauty standards hasn't let up. On the contrary, it's caused women's confidence in their bodies to decline and has left 87% willing to opt-out of important life activities (such as engaging with loved ones) and risk their health to achieve their desired look, according to research.
Women are also dealing with this craziness: Research reveals that women who take more care with their appearance tend to earn higher incomes; goods and services for women's grooming cost more (even when the products are shown to have identical formulations to those made for men); and that, over the last year, access to grooming services has been limited thanks to total lockdowns, the burden of managing remote schooling, a devastating lack of child care that causes more women than men to miss work, a less manageable workload, and diminishing career opportunities.
And the need to be camera-ready 24/7 for work has only made things worse. "Zoom and videoconferencing puts even more pressure on women to have polished hair and makeup at all times," explains Jennifer Berger, executive director of About Face, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that educates about harmful cultural trends and empowers girls and women to make a difference.
In other words, it's a perfect storm.
The mirror effect
Not surprisingly, those facts don't gel with a platform that relies on appearance and visibility. According to new research, Zoom's "self-view" window creates a "mirror effect," or the sensation of looking in a mirror during an entire meeting, which can be harder on women given the expectations outlined above. Research also shows that women report feeling trapped within the camera view, restricting movements and increasing anxiety. Ditto for the feeling of having eyes on you all the time. And that helpless feeling you get when someone posts a photo of you on social media that you never would post yourself because you don't think it presents your "best" side? Zoom can trigger that sense of powerlessness, too.
"We've increased the amount of time we spend looking at our bodies each day, and we're looking at them in different ways," explains Jessica Byrd, LCSW, a therapist in Tempe, Arizona, who specializes in body image issues. The result: "Aspects of our appearance that we might have previously avoided or could have chosen not to focus on can be transformed into a major thing we're forced to focus on during a video chat," says Byrd.
Zoom fatigue also hits women harder because video conferencing doesn't play to women's natural communication style, which tends to include more non-verbal cues (body language and facial expressions) and displays of empathy. It also requires more engagement than a standard, in-person conversation to come across as an active listener, exhausting on its own, and a big ask of women already dealing with a lot.
3 ways to make things (at least a little) better
So, what can women do to improve their online experiences? We've got some tips for the next time you log in:
1. Control what you can
If watching yourself triggers anxiety, turn off the "self-view" function. "You'll still be visible to colleagues, but you won't be looking at yourself 'from the outside,' which can make us even more self-conscious and critical of ourselves," says Berger.
2. Set boundaries
If the meeting is informal, send an email in advance asking if audio-only is OK. You'd probably be surprised at how many of your fellow staffers find being on camera all the time stressful and invasive. Setting limits can be both healthy and empowering, says Byrd.
3. Help people plan
If you're running the meeting, kick it off by announcing your goal end time ("Hey everyone, we're aiming to keep this to a 45-minute check-in") because being looked at might be slightly more manageable if participants know the expected duration. Another idea: Create at least one Zoom-free day per week so that folks can plan for a physical and mental "rest" day.
The advantages of Zoom aren't up for debate. It is a phenomenal tool that's transformed the workplace and made remote work feasible in a way it's never been before. But it's important to acknowledge that video conferencing presents very tough challenges for women overhaul of the expectations of what we should look like when working from home is long overdue.