Disclaimer: This article is not intended as medical advice. Please consult a healthcare professional if you’re experiencing serious medical issues.
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What is Zoom fatigue?
Zoom fatigue — also known as virtual or video meeting fatigue — is the mental, physical, social, and emotional exhaustion a person feels after the persistent use of video conferencing software for virtual meetings. Data from a 2023 study published in Scientific Reports confirms this is a real condition, with virtual meetings causing neurophysiological changes that lead to fatigue.
Despite several video conferencing applications available today, like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and Skype, Zoom’s explosion in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic for its free, intuitive platform resulted in the genericization of the word. Almost overnight, Zoom skyrocketed from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to over 200 million in March 2020, according to an April 2020 message from Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan.
With the increased use of Zoom for work and personal purposes, virtual meetings became “Zoom meetings,” and video conferencing became “Zooming.” Soon, the phrase “Zoom fatigue” referred to feeling exhausted after all-day video meetings and continues to be used today.
Symptoms of Zoom fatigue are similar to those of regular fatigue and can include any number of the following:
Employees suffering from Zoom fatigue can create problems for the company and its employees’ well-being. Some of the main ones include:
Pandemic vs. post-pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in businesses and regular consumers using video conferencing to facilitate anything from project meetings to virtual family game nights, telehealth appointments, or eLearning. But the consistent use of these platforms created an uncomfortable reality: the absolute necessity of these programs for professional, personal, and social needs at the cost of physical and mental health.
This hasn’t changed much in post-pandemic life, with 2023 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that 27.5% of U.S. employees teleworked at least some of the time in private establishments during 2022. Although lower than the 40.1% of employees during 2021, this is still higher than pre-pandemic levels. For instance, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that around 24% of U.S. employees teleworked in 2018 and 2019.
Hybrid work arrangements have become popular as more employees return to the office. To manage these new work cadences, companies will still need to leverage video conferencing software and other productivity tools to facilitate collaboration between employees from anywhere — meaning, Zoom fatigue is still possible in today’s workforce.
What causes Zoom fatigue?
According to Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue, Stanford University professor Jeremy N. Bailenson proposed four potential causes of Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective. They include:
Sustained eye contact
During virtual meetings, regardless of whether you are the speaker or a listener, all eyes seem to be on you. To add to the effect, the faces of the people you see on screen are significantly larger than in-person meetings, giving the impression you are standing very close to meeting participants.
This can lead to social anxiety and stress because you feel obligated to be “always on” to justify the perceived level of attention. Moreover, it can result in an uncomfortable level of intimacy since such personal eye contact and facial closeness are typically reserved for close friends or loved ones.
Nonverbal and cognitive overloads
Even in virtual settings, our brains look for nonverbal cues that can often relay a lot of information. But nonverbal cues don’t necessarily translate in the virtual environment. For example, if a meeting attendee appears to give a sidelong glance to another participant, an observer might give this some social meaning. But in reality, that sidelong glance was nothing more than looking at an off-meeting notification.
Meeting participants also often exaggerate body language, facial expressions, or other gestures to make reading social cues easier. But doing this, interpreting others’ nonverbal cues, and concentrating on multiple attendees can significantly increase your cognitive load — or the amount of information your brain processes at once.
The ease with which you can multitask also affects your cognitive load. Video conferencing opens you up to distraction, allowing you to respond to emails, search the web, or finish a project while you attend the meeting. Such frequent task-switching fractures your focus and increases your cognitive load.
Findings from a 2023 Yale University research study even indicate that our brains aren’t adapted to process virtual conversations the same way as face-to-face ones. Lower levels of neural synchronization during video meetings can lead to social awkwardness as well as mental fatigue and physical exhaustion.
Video conferencing software includes a mirrored reflection of yourself, so you can make sure you remain within the camera frame for meeting participants. However, this also means you see yourself alongside other participants during the meeting.
Constantly looking at your reflection is linked to increased self-evaluation, anxiety, and stress. Feelings of self-criticism can affect your mental well-being, like self-worth and confidence, resulting in irritability, frustration, and, of course, fatigue. Recent studies back this up with evidence that video conferencing leads to increased fixation on one’s appearance and poorer work performance.
You typically cannot move as freely when video conferencing. This is because you are limited by your web camera’s field of view, forcing you to stay within its parameters.
In contrast, in-person meetings or audio conference calls allow you to stand, stretch, grab a glass of water, or move freely around the room. Keeping the body confined to one spot for extended periods is unnatural, leading to muscle aches, tenseness, and tiredness.
How HR can combat Zoom fatigue
If you start noticing a significant number of your employees with Zoom fatigue symptoms, there are steps you and your HR team can take. You can even measure how much Zoom fatigue employees may be experiencing through Stanford’s Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue (ZEF) Scale. Employee surveying or engagement platforms are also great tools to solicit feedback on company meeting processes and feelings of fatigue.
Once you determine it’s a problem, you can implement new meeting policies across the company. This can create consistency and give employees more time away from the meetings that exhaust them.
Perform a meeting audit
A meeting audit takes stock of recurring meetings to see if they continue to be productive and effective.
Most meeting audits contain the following steps:
- List your regular meetings each week.
- Decide if any of these meetings are necessary or if you can accomplish these meeting goals through other communication methods.
- Determine if the duration and meeting attendees are appropriate.
- Restructure meeting agendas to encourage collaboration, such as asking questions instead of reading a list of bullet points.
- Make social or team-building events optional.
- Implement the changes.
HR and learning and development (L&D) teams can provide meeting audit steps to employees and encourage them to reevaluate their meeting cadences often.
An increasingly popular workplace trend is placing a temporary moratorium on meetings so employees can create meetings more intentionally. Shopify, for example, removed 12,000 regularly occurring meetings in January 2023 with the expectation of giving over 300,000 meeting-free hours back to employees.
Why this works
Auditing your meetings allows you to be more critical of your time so you can focus on meaningful work. It also gives your eyes a rest from looking at others during the meeting. At the same time, it creates a better work-life balance by preventing work from bleeding into your personal life.
Learn more about Shopify and auditing your meeting cadences:
Make meetings shorter
Consider making meetings shorter to encourage quick discussions. You may discover that meetings only ran for an hour because they were scheduled for an hour, not because they needed to be that long.
For example, Jaime Nacach, founder and CEO of Virtual Latinos, notes how shortening meeting duration and focusing on objectives and action items increased information retention and reduced employee fatigue.
To make meetings shorter, try the following:
- Ask employees to shorten their meetings by five to ten minutes and reexamine their meeting agendas.
- Encourage employees to prepare beforehand so attendees waste less time brainstorming during the meeting.
- Repeat the process until employees find the perfect meeting length that balances productivity and efficiency.
Why this works
When meetings are shorter, employees are more likely to be focused, present, and share information in the allotted time. Shorter meetings also mean fewer opportunities to get distracted by other priorities that increase your cognitive load and lead to strain.
Use alternative communication methods
Using asynchronous communication methods, like emails, direct messages, or voice calls, can be an effective alternative to video conferencing. It allows employees to read, digest, and follow up, if necessary, at their convenience.
If your company has a hybrid work cadence, consider scheduling team meetings when everyone is in person to prevent the use of video conferencing software altogether.
But, if you can’t, solutions like Microsoft Teams or Slack, project management tools, or even employee experience platforms to centralize internal communications can help. Workvivo, for example, unifies company applications and gives employees multiple ways to connect with their peers, like personalized newsfeeds, video streams, or podcasts.
Why this works
Employees learn to be more intentional about what kind of communication method they should use for particular tasks. As a result, video conferencing with all team members is no longer the default, as employees share information through the right people and channels.
Learn more about Workvivo’s capabilities:
Encourage meeting breaks
Ask employees to be mindful of how they schedule their meetings during the day and discourage back-to-back meetings. Regular breaks between meetings, even if they are only five to ten minutes, provide opportunities for employees to stretch, get up, go to the bathroom, rest, or grab a snack.
At Virtual Latinos, meetings are reserved for only the most important information and updates to support as many meeting-free days as possible. “[It allows] team members to focus on deep work, catch up on tasks, or simply take a break from video calls,” Nacach explains.
Why this works
Short breaks allow employees to be away from their screens to rest, even if briefly. Employees have a chance to reset their mental loads, reducing the chance of errors and confusion when shifting between meetings or other tasks.
Distractions come in many forms during video meetings, from looking at yourself during the meeting to sidebar chat conversations to examining various participants’ meeting backgrounds.
To fix this, ask employees to limit distractions during meetings by:
Why this works
Removing the ability to see yourself or others during the meeting can increase focus and limit the feelings of self-criticism and anxiety that fuel Zoom fatigue. Neutral backgrounds or turning off cameras can also give attendees’ brains time to rest since they only have to focus on processing audio conversations. It also reduces onscreen stimuli, creating a more neurodivergent-friendly workplace.
Change the perception of meetings
Companies shouldn’t base employees’ work productivity on the number of meetings scheduled in a day or week, especially if those employees are remote or hybrid.
Instead, HR teams should work to shift this perception so employees don’t feel obligated to schedule meetings that interfere with productive work. Using performance metrics like key performance indicators (KPIs), objectives and key results (OKRs), or continuous feedback is a more reliable way to measure employee success.
Shopify, for example, invented a unique tool called the Shopify Meeting Cost Calculator to change the perception of meetings drastically. The tool is a Google Chrome extension that integrates with Google Calendar. It estimates the cost of creating each meeting based on the number of attendees, their salaries, and the meeting length.
Depending on these factors, a three-person, 30-minute meeting could easily cost the company around $1,600. As a result, employees now have to think critically about the necessity of each meeting, reducing their frequency and length.
Although Shopify’s calculator is not available publicly on the Chrome Web Store, other variations exist. For example, Ramp’s Meeting Cost Calculator is a great alternative.
Why this works
When you view meetings no longer as necessities but as slight inconveniences, the number of meetings on employees’ schedules drops. This leads to more focus time on their actual work, reducing burnout, increasing engagement, and improving overall performance.
How technology is responding to Zoom fatigue
We can’t get rid of meetings, nor should we. Meetings can be vital to connecting with colleagues, getting alignment on projects, or discussing sensitive information, like constructive feedback in performance reviews. Even informal, non-mandatory meetings for social activities can be a great way to foster positive working relationships, especially among remote teams.
Nevertheless, our increased screen time takes a toll on our physical and mental well-being. With the increase of Zoom fatigue, technology companies and video conferencing vendors continue to innovate their products to limit its effects, like:
You can also check out our HR and performance management software lists for features, like agenda templates and collaboration tools, to help make meetings more focused and productive.
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