Why Zoom meetings are more exhausting than face-to-face ones

A study from Stanford University has found that nonverbal overload may be one of the reasons videoconferences cause greater fatigue

Screenshot of a Zoom meeting between lawmakers in Virginia.
Screenshot of a Zoom meeting between lawmakers in Virginia.AP
Álvaro Sánchez

The selling point for a Buddhist community in Barcelona to attract customers interested in spending time isolated between the silent walls of their monastery may have been different were it not for the coronavirus pandemic. “Tired of so many Meet, Zoom and Teams meetings? If you need to disconnect, breathe pure air and find your internal balance once more, give yourself the gift of an Inner Peace Retreat and recharge your batteries!” the message read.

Psychologists are paying more and more attention to the effects that this change in habits is having on millions of employees, a change that has been driven by the coronavirus health crisis.

A study published by the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has dubbed the phenomenon “Zoom fatigue,” and warns that the mosaic of faces with whom we are closely interacting while rooted to a chair, along with the difficulty of detecting body language, with our face exposed to the scrutiny of others and our own self-evaluation on the screen, is creating additional stress.

According to the investigation, constant self-evaluation can be stressful, especially among women

The author of the study, Jeremy Bailenson, compares it with the discomfort of being in an elevator, where the unwritten rules of distancing from strangers are broken and the natural reaction is to avert your gaze in order to minimize visual contact and compensate for that excessive closeness.

“Through Zoom, the opposite is happening,” he explains. “In a normal meeting, independently of who is speaking, each person is looking directly at the eyes of the others,” he adds.

In addition, this virtual elevator is also a massive mirror where we see ourselves reflected. For Bailenson, it resembles an assistant that follows us for the eight hours of the working day carrying a mirror in which we can see our own face while we work.

Solving this is simple. It’s enough to change the configuration so that we can’t see ourselves, but the preset option is to see the result of how our own camera looks at us. Why is this negative? According to the investigation, because constant self-evaluation can be stressful, especially among women. He cites a study that found that female users paid a lot more attention to looking at themselves during a live video.

No field study has yet examined what happens when this exposure lasts for hours at a time, day after day. “Zoom users see reflections of themselves with an unprecedented frequency and duration (apart from those who work in dance studios full of mirrors),” the researcher explains.

The effort needed to communicate is also higher if compared with that needed for a phone call. The report from the US university cites experiments that show that people speak at a volume that is 15% higher during a video call, and that the lack of physical proximity results in exaggerated non-verbal language, such as head movements, more insistent nodding and a fixed stare at the camera. What’s more, it is more complicated to interpret the looks and signals from others than it is in person, which leads to an extra effort to decipher them.

It’s too many Zoom meetings. I hate that
Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom

Another irritation with home working that we are not always conscious of is the static nature of video calls, compared to phone calls or face-to-face conversations. In these situations, you cannot walk and talk, which makes the interaction less natural. David Michael Hough, international health education director at the information analysis company Elsevier, calculates that he has between six and nine Zoom meetings a day from his home in Madrid. “I think that the concept of fatigue exists, but if you are aware of it you have the opportunity to find a balance,” he explains. “After a lot of calls in a row, I need to get away from my computer.”

That said, he sees more advantages than inconveniences. “You can get a global team together much more easily, documents are shared, carbon emissions are reduced, there is more transparency thanks to being able to enter the homes of others, and there is increased empathy if there are interruptions by family members, visitors or your dog,” he argues.

Stanford University believes its research to be the first of its kind to analyze Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective. The article was published in Technology, Mind and Behavior, the magazine from the American Psychological Association and while it is based on academic research, the author points out that readers should consider it as a collection of arguments that can help both Zoom and its users to improve their interaction, and not as unquestionable scientific discoveries. Measures such as using an external keyboard to increase the space with the screen, reduce the size of the Zoom window on the monitor, turn off the camera from time to time when the user is not interacting, and moving around the room are among the tips to reduce this fatigue.

The sensation of boredom from the daily use of a tool that, until a few months ago, was practically unknown for many has even affected its creator. According to Bloomberg, Eric Yuan, the founder and CEO of Zoom, complained about his tight schedule of videoconferences last April. “It’s too many Zoom meetings,” he said, via Zoom. “I hate that.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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