The COVID-19 pandemic has moved our lives into a virtual space. Why is that so exhausting?
The tiredness doesn’t feel earned. We’re not flying an airplane, teaching toddlers or rescuing people trapped in burning buildings. Still, by the end of the day, the feeling is so universal that it has its own name: Zoom fatigue.
Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has some answers. In research published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior, he describes the psychological impact of spending hours every day on Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime or other video-calling interfaces. It’s the first peer-reviewed article to analyze Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective.
There are four major reasons, according to Bailenson, that video chats make us so weary. And he proposes some easy fixes.
We’re too close for comfort
Think of the normal meeting. You might be looking at the speaker. Or maybe you’re noticing those fancy new window blinds, your colleague’s weekend tan or the traffic on the streets below.
But on Zoom calls, everyone is staring at everyone, all the time. And our faces can appear too large.
When so many faces are so close to ours in real life, our subconscious takes it personally. It tells us: They either want to pick a fight, or have sex. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state,” Bailenson said.
Solution: Exit out of the full-screen option to shrink face size. Use an external keyboard to create a comfortable space between yourself and the masses.
We really hate watching ourselves
For most of us, that quick morning glimpse in the mirror is all we really need. After hours of self-gazing, we turn critical. We notice that sloppy shave job. The overdue haircut. The dead plant over our left shoulder. Or maybe the light’s all wrong, casting deep shadows, and we look like a member of the witness protection program.
“It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful,” said Bailenson. “There are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”
Solution: Use the “hide self-view” button, which you can access by right-clicking your own photo, once your face is framed properly in the video.
We’re trapped in our chairs
Humans are restless creatures. During phone calls, we like to wander around. Even if stuck at a meeting at a conference table, we find ways to stretch – leaning back in a chair or gazing pensively at the ceiling. But with videoconferencing, we’re limited by the camera’s field of view.
This is both physically and mentally deadening. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said.
Solution: An external camera farther away from the screen lets you doodle, release neck tension, do a seated twist or fidget, just like you do in real meetings. Turning video off periodically during meetings is a good ground rule to set for groups, creating a brief nonverbal rest.
It takes more energy to communicate
At their best, meetings can act like subtle symphonies, with everyone harmonizing their postures, laughter and knowing glances. We read each other’s cues. Conversations have rhythm.
Not so with Zoom. There’s a rigidity, with only one speaker at a time. We must listen closely for sentence completion, so we don’t interrupt. To make an important point, we must add drama and flair.
“If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up,” said Bailenson. “That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
Solution: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an “audio only” break. Don’t just turn off your camera — turn your body away from the screen. Gaze at that wall that needs painting, or the birds outside the window. Maybe hang up a few clothes, even wash a few dishes.
Join the research
Want to measure your own Zoom fatigue? Because so many organizations — including schools, large companies and government entities — have reached out to Stanford communication researchers to improve videoconferencing setups, the team responded by devising the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale, or ZEF Scale, to help measure workplace exhaustion. The goal is to help change video technology to reduce stressors.
To take the survey and participate in the research project, go to stanforduniversity.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3f9xepi9ryP7WK2
How to help family members embrace unfamiliar technology — at any age
Do all your Zoom chats with Mom these days start with, “You’re on mute. The button’s lower left”?
If so, you’re part of an ever-growing group trying to help their less tech-savvy loved ones zip into Zoom, hop onto Hulu and master gadgets from a greater distance than usual thanks to the global pandemic.
Chances are, you found it a tiny bit frustrating to spend hours talking through something that you easily could have done in seconds.
I say this from my own experience. Early in the pandemic, I talked my 81-year-old mother through installing and using Zoom so she could join in a weekly familywide chat.
But the real challenge came with helping her set up an Apple TV from 3,000 miles away.
What would’ve taken five minutes in person instead required a week’s worth of phone calls and ultimately, a FaceTime encounter with the back of her TV.
The good news is that getting a Boomer on Zoom can not only be stress-free, but also life-enriching and empowering, if you take the right approach.
Here are some things to keep in mind for an effective remote tech help strategy.
“Younger generations have been taught to fudge around (with technology) and hack,” says Lisa M. Cini, author of “Boom: The Baby Boomers Guide to Leveraging Technology, So That You Can Preserve Your Independent Lifestyle & Thrive.”
“This generation was not taught that at all. When you don’t comprehend it, you get scared you’ll break it,” she says.
Cini says the result is the fear that an errant button push will render the piece of technology totally useless. That’s why it’s important to underscore often that nothing they do to today’s tech gadgets will result in irreversible damage.
That’s echoed by Alex Glazebrook, director of operations for Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a nonprofit that helps seniors make the most of the technology around them.
“(Telling them) ‘You can’t break it’ is where we start from,” he says.
“We try to really calm people’s nerves and try to make them feel like they’re in control, that they can do this.”
Take it step by step
When it comes to helping the less tech-savvy set explore a new gadget or service, both Glazebrook and Cini liken it to learning a foreign language — both literally and figuratively.
“If you think of it as a language, once (you) start talking through things you’ll realize there are a lot of little things we take for granted as a common language that are not,” Cini says.
“Simple things like ‘swipe left,’ ‘swipe right’ or ‘click on the hamburger (icon)’ that they don’t even have the capacity to understand.”
Glazebrook says approaching new technology like foreign-language learning is helpful because both are about adding to a knowledge base piece by piece over time.
“When you learn a language, it builds,” he says. “You learn nouns, you learn verbs, conjugation and then sentence structure, you build complexity.”
Make a manual
Cini says creating an easy-to-follow guide complete with photos, pointer arrows and clear, detailed instructions (even as basic as “press the enter button”) can go a long way toward flattening the learning curve and empowering people.
“If you can create a good set of step-by-step instructions, with visuals, and print it out and maybe even laminate it for them, they’ll be able to refer to it and not have to worry about remembering all the steps,” she says.
What if you lack the skills to be an IT department from afar?
That’s where organizations like OATS come in. Glazebrook says OATS’ national Senior Planet hotline is staffed with live bodies offering one-on-one technology help, completely free of charge, “whether you need to get on your first Zoom or download your Capital One banking app because you can’t go to the branch anymore and you need to deposit a check,” Glazebrook says.
Glazebrook says that at the beginning of the pandemic, the most requested assistance was with connecting via video.
Cini points out that of all the tech skills to master, Zoom has an additional upside.
“Video chats are really important,” she says. “You can see their facial expressions, you can see if they’ve lost weight.”
“And we know, scientifically, it’s very hard not to smile when someone else is smiling,” she adds. “So we have the ability to increase somebody else’s happiness just by doing a (video chat) instead of a phone call.”