Jeremy Bailenson was exhausted. It was a Friday in late March and he had just finished his first full week working from home during the coronavirus pandemic — nine-hour days spent glued to a laptop in a spare bedroom of his house.
It’s been nearly a year since he first experienced that video-call-induced exhaustion — an early glimpse of what millions of others may have faced since beginning to work remotely. Now he’s published a paper outlining why video chats may exact such a mental toll, and suggesting how you can reduce fatigue.
“There was a transformation in that we went from rarely videoconferencing to videoconferencing very frequently and without really knowing the parameters of what the costs and the benefits are and how to really think about that,” said Bailenson in an interview. He is a professor and the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
The peer-reviewed article was published last month in the American Psychological Association’s Technology Mind and Behavior journal. It draws on existing academic theory and research and says there are four possible reasons for “Zoom fatigue.” The paper, Bailenson writes, should not be perceived as “indicting” Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms.
“I am a huge fan of what Zoom has done,” he said. “I just think asking yourself, ‘Do I really need to be on video for this?’ is a nice way to approach a moderation strategy toward your media day.”
The paper was widely shared on social media, and reactions poured in responding to Bailenson’s analysis. Some suggested his paper essentially called for a return to phone calls.
Why video calls can be exhausting
The paper says that there’s an excessive amount of direct eye gaze as people look at other faces close-up. It’s unnatural and not what people would typically do in an in-person meeting. During a video call, everyone is often staring at the speaker and the listeners, whereas in-person, some people may glance at their notes or lean over to a colleague for a side conversation.
“Now listeners in a Zoom call are being stared at the same way speakers get stared at in the real world,” Bailenson said, pointing to public speaking as “one of the highest sources of anxiety that there is.”
There’s also the constant self-evaluation. Seeing our own faces and gestures several hours a day on video is stressful and taxing, Bailenson said. Imagine if someone followed you around with a mirror during the work day “and made sure that everything you’re doing, you’re staring at your own face in real-time.”
“You wouldn’t be able to live your life that way, right?” he said. “That sounds insane.”
He said this occurs largely because the default setting on video platforms is to show people their own image.
Video chats also cut down on people’s ability to be mobile. Instead of walking and talking like you might be able to do during a phone call, video chats mostly force participants to stay in a fixed position.
“The problem with video — because culturally it’s kind of offensive if you’re not sitting in that frame and looking in the field of view of the camera — people sit still,” Bailenson said.
During in-person meetings, people may be more active, standing up and pacing, going to a whiteboard or doodling.
On top of all that, participating in video calls may increase cognitive load, meaning more mental effort is needed.
“In real conversation, you’re just talking. You’re gesturing. It’s the most natural thing in the world,” he said. “Now things like turn-taking have to become deliberate. You have to think about ‘When am I going to unmute myself and click that button?’ And you have to think about ‘Well, I want to make sure they see that I like the idea, I’ve got to pretend slow clap in front of the camera.’ ”
All of those nonverbal gestures of communication — which are automatic during in-person interactions — now take extra mental effort for some people. Accessibility experts say the toll may be even higher for people with disabilities.
Sheri Byrne-Haber, an accessibility advocate, says her own disabilities have exacerbated her “Zoom fatigue.”
Byrne-Haber uses a wheelchair and has moderate hearing loss, among other disabilities. Because she has to focus more intently on people’s faces during video calls to read lips, it increases her cognitive load, she said.
When there is automatic captioning on the video, the punctuation can be erratic, the words can be transcribed incorrectly and the caption is not always attributed to the speaker.
“Even when the captioning is good and you can keep up, all of these factors add up to higher levels of cognitive load, which leaves less working memory to focus on the topic at hand,” she told The Washington Post in an email. “I’m literally so drained at the end of the day where I have thirteen 30-minute meetings that I sometimes go to bed at 7,” she said.
By identifying potential causes of “Zoom fatigue” affecting the general population, Bailenson’s paper validates people’s experiences and shows that they aren’t alone, said Suzan Song. Song is an associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University who was not involved in the research. Suggestions for some simple changes to videoconferencing habits, she said, can help increase agency.
“It was a really nice and practical article that draws on current scientific theories around the phenomena that so many are experiencing right now with the relentless pandemic,” she said.
While Bailenson’s points are “useful for the here and now,” Song said she would like to see more studies build upon the paper, which provides a “really strong foundation to work off of.”
Andrew Bennett, an assistant professor of management at Old Dominion University, has a forthcoming paper with his own research on video conference fatigue. His study, which will be published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Psychology, found results that differ from the reasons outlined in Bailenson’s article for what causes fatigue after these calls.
“I think that’s the nature of science, we do it different ways,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re still finding video conference fatigue happens and we’re still trying to figure out why.”
The next step for Bailenson is studying the psychological impacts of videoconferencing practices. He and other researchers have devised a “Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale” questionnaire and are gathering responses about people’s experiences with video calls. About 10,000 people have already completed the survey, Bailenson said.
Bailenson also said he has heard from Zoom’s chief product officer and is planning to speak to the company to suggest possible interface changes.
In a statement to The Post, Zoom acknowledged the transition into regular videoconferencing has been seamless for some, and a challenge for others. “We’re all learning this new way of communicating and adjusting to the blurred lines between work and personal interactions,” the company said.
Tips to reduce ‘Zoom fatigue’
In the meantime, Bailenson’s paper offers ideas for how to address the potential causes of fatigue. He and other experts say people, particularly managers who have more control over meetings, can try various changes to make videoconferencing less taxing.
Two easy potential fixes are hiding self-view and minimizing the video call screen, Bailenson said. On Zoom, for instance, you can right-click your video display and select the “Hide Myself” option, which removes self-view but allows others in the meeting to still see you.
Meeting hosts should also give people breaks to look away from their screens during video calls, Song said. Whenever she is running a group call, she said, she asks attendees to take 30 seconds or a minute to look around the room they’re in and count the number of corners they see. The activity, Song said, can provide reprieve from the intensity of staring at the speaker or other meeting attendees and may lessen cognitive load.
Similarly, Bailenson said it’s important to remember that you can move around “just like you would in a real meeting.”
For those who may be feeling disconnected, Bennett suggested finding time for “informal chit chat” or smaller side conversations that used to organically occur during in-person situations. “To create a sense of shared belonging-ness and shared connectedness with people really matters,” he said.
While these tips may help alleviate the effects of “Zoom fatigue,” Bailenson urged people to remember video calls aren’t the only effective way to communicate.
“We have to take a step back and realize that just because you can be in a video conference doesn’t mean that you have to,” Bailenson said. “There were many decades in this world in which the phone worked just fine, didn’t it?”