Virtual interactions are tiring for the brain, causing “zoom fatigue” and has gotten worse as more companies work remotely due to COVID-19. Studies show it’s tougher to communicate for people who are reliant on non-verbal cues. As a result, group chats (whether Zoom, Meet, Teams) become less collaborative and more of a siloed conversation between two people while others observe. What is it about video calls that are so draining?
Ned Presnall, LCSW owner/director of Plan Your Recovery, believes that looking at a screen causes us to miss out on the stimulation our brains need. “We miss out on body language, physical proximity, handshakes, hugs, the experience of sharing food, and even the sense of togetherness we get from being in the same room. We’re social creatures, and the social stimuli that reward our brains are not fully provided when we meet through video chat.” Rex Freiberger, CEO, Discuss Diets, believes this is especially challenging for neurodivergent people. “The cues needed to effectively communicate are almost completely absent,” said Rex. “You have to learn a new shorthand for communication when you don't have access to body language.”
Liv Allen, Account Director with Codeword, pointed to new research stating that 95% of people experience auditory pain points that affect their concentration and efficiency at work. This causes the average worker to loses 29 minutes per week due to poor sound quality on voice calls. “Employees would benefit from higher quality audio solutions to support their productivity and well-being,” said Allen. “Seventy-nine percent of decision makers agree that good audio equipment such as headsets, headphones, and speaker phones can alleviate auditory pain points both on and off calls. Ninety-three percent plan to purchase new equipment within the next 12 months, motivated in large part by the desire to keep up with the latest technology.”
In addition to the auditory pain, Erik Rivera, CEO of ThriveTalk believes a large part of the drain comes from the monotony of staring at one spot. He said, “When we meet online, the only thing we pay attention to is the fixed screen. This causes massive fatigue to our eyes and is incredibly monotonous for our minds, which are accustomed to being stimulated. This results in heavy eyes and a mental drain.”
Sonya Schwartz, founder Her Norm, shares her experience. “Virtual meetings are more tiring and draining,” said Schwartz, “because you are required to focus more, expected to always be 'on', and have to deal with technical difficulties. With virtual meetings being more tiring and draining and Zoom being the most popular virtual meeting platform, the term 'Zoom fatigue' was created.” Freiberger agrees, “Zoom is exhausting because it feels like the focus is on you constantly, even if it isn't. You are ‘on’ socially, in a professional mindset, and keeping track of many different things at once.” Dr. Stacy Lott, PsyD CADC, Clarity Clinic Chicago believes it is also anxiety provoking to feel watched and keenly aware of how you look to others. She said, “These feelings of judgement and anxiety drain our energy as well.”
Before COVID-19, it was rare to sit three feet from people at work for an hour and stare directly at their faces. Body language expert Patti Wood, MA believes staring adds to the sense of exhaustion. She explains, “Staring is such a strong cue that it is typically reserved for intimidation and elaborate flirting rituals where the stare calls forth the desired reaction. Being stared at by one person in face to face interactions causes our cortisol levels to rise and may also create an adrenaline rush. Our brains were designed to go towards movement and scan for danger and food, so our limbic brains keep scanning everyone's zoom environment, remaining on high alert."
However, there are some activities that work well with Zoom or other video calls. Clea Monsurate, Senior Manager at The Sound, said virtual activities are the exception. She explains, “Doing an activity together offers natural pauses in the conversation and provides a focus for the interaction, causing less fatigue. Watching movies via Netflix Party with relatives that live hundreds of miles away, playing JackBox while drinking with college friends, or having daily Scrabble app battles with Mom are all a lot more engaging than simply watching each other speak. Because these activities make it easier to maintain long-distance relationships by making virtual socializing more fun, it is likely they will continue in a post COVID-19 world.”