Almost one year ago, life for most of us changed irrevocably: we went from commuting to and from our offices and fighting traffic to commuting between our bedrooms and “home” offices and fighting over internet access. We went into “lockdown.” And with it, we all took an accelerated course on how to use video conferencing, Zoom included. Our lives suddenly began to play out almost totally on our computer screens in video conference mode whether business or social! And with it came Zoom fatigue.
This year long pandemic has allowed Jeremy N. Bailenson in the Department of Communications at Stanford University to conduct research on Zoom fatigue and how to combat it. In his article, “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue” published February 23, 2021 in Technology, Mind and Behavior (volume 1, Issue 3), discusses the causes of Zoom fatigue and how to deal with it. He notes that his discussion, while based on theory and research, have yet to be directly tested and that while he uses Zoom as his point of reference, he means no disrespect. (Id. at 2.)
The author focuses on four possible causes of Zoom fatigue: “Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility.” (Id. at 3.)
With respect to excessive amounts of close-up gaze, Bailenson notes that typically when we are standing in an elevator, to avoid looking at others so close to us, we typically avert our gaze. (Id. at 3-4.) And research has shown that we all crave a certain interpersonal distance or space when speaking in person with others which distance will be closer when speaking with “intimates”. (Id. at 4.) Yet, when using Zoom, due to the configuration of the screen, we find ourselves really “close up” to others– at a distance typically reserved for those with whom we are intimate and unlike the elevator situation or in an in-person meeting, we cannot avert our eyes, look down at our phones etc. as that would be rude. (Id. at 4-5.)
And this leads to the second cause: cognitive overload. In an in-person conversation, the bulk of our communication is nonverbal which we pick up unconsciously. We do not have to work at it. However, on Zoom – quite the opposite. “Users are forced to consciously monitor nonverbal behavior and send cues to others that are intentionally generated.” (Id. at 6.) For example, we will center ourselves in front of the camera, or nod with exaggeration, or look directly into the camera to make direct eye contact and even raise our voice by about 15% and do all of this for an extended period of time. (Id.) And we also work this hard when receiving cues. As only our faces are available as opposed to our entire bodies, we must work harder at deciphering the cues from studying the head and eye movements of others. And again, this means we are forced to continuously be looking at others without the luxury of looking away every so often which we would do at an in-person meeting. (Id.)
And… this leads us to the third cause: all day mirror. We are looking at our own selves on zoom for the entirety of the meeting. We end up staring at ourselves for hours (Id. at 8.), focusing on how we look rather than on the meeting we are attending. We end up evaluating how we look often leading to a negative affect. (Id.) One study noted that “…women are more likely than men to direct attention internally in response to seeing themselves via live video.” (Id. at 8.) The result may be depression. (Id.)
And finally, but certainly not the least, is the lack of mobility. When we meet in person, we can stretch in our chairs, even get up and stretch, walk around the room and otherwise be mobile, Indeed, studies have shown that some people think best and are more creative when they can walk around. (Id. at 9.) But, with Zoom, unless we are using a smartphone or a small tablet, we do not have this mobility. We are forced to sit straight up in the chair, look directly into the camera for hours on end, and stay close enough to the computer to use the keyboard for the whiteboard, power point or the “chat” function. If we attempt to sit back, we may be out of camera view which may be deemed rude. (Id. at 9-10). In sum, we are forced to sit still in a small amount of space for a very long time. (Id.) Indeed, a very unpleasant experience.
In conclusion, the author notes that some minor changes to the design of the Zoom interface with solve these issues:
For example, the default setting should be hiding the self-window instead of showing it, or at least hiding it automatically after a few seconds once users know they are framed properly. Likewise, there can simply be a limit to how large Zoom displays any given head; this problem is simple technologically given they have already figured out how to detect the outline of the head with the virtual background feature. Outside of software, people can also solve the problems outlined above with changes in hardware and culture. Use an external webcam and external keyboard that allows more flexibility and control over various seating arrangements. Make “audio only” Zoom meetings the default, or better yet, insist on taking some calls via telephone to free your body from the frustrum. (Id. at 10.)
For those wondering if they are indeed suffering from Zoom fatigue, there is a Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale which asks 15 questions such how exhausted do you feel after a zoom meeting, how irritated are your eyes afterwards and how often do you feel too tired to do anything else after a zoom meeting. (https://stanforduniversity.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3xGmOOvQ5YZlaZM) (See: https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/23/four-causes-zoom-fatigue-solutions/ )
As I have a sneaking suspicion that even when are allowed to return to “normal” life, Zoom will still be very much a part of our lives (i.e., there is no going backwards!), this fatigue factor is something we will all have to reckon with.
… Just something to think about