What causes Zoom fatigue (and what can you do about it)?

Published by Jackie Barrie on

February 2021 saw the publication of a study on Zoom fatigue in the journal Technology, Mind & Behaviour. It was conducted by Jeremy Bailenson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. He has spent over 20 years looking at how virtual interaction affects people, and has identified four key factors based on previous research.

Here they are, with my added commentary.

Stressed hyper-arousal

In the 1960s, research by Edward Hall suggested that 60cm / 23in was the usual radius of interpersonal distance – the intimate space near you which is usually reserved for family and friends.

Even with loved ones, close-up eye contact like this can cause stress over excessive stretches of time.

The effect depends on the size of the faces on your monitor, so the best thing to do is move away from your screen, so that video calls don’t feel quite so ‘up close and personal’. You might even buy an external camera that creates more distance.

Increased cognitive load

In 1999, Pamela Hinds at Stanford tested pairs of volunteers on (a) guessing game (b) recognition task.

She found that audio-only participants performed better than video, because video calls demand greater attention than audio calls as the brain has to concentrate on so many things at once.

The advice is to replace some video calls with audio, or to build in breaks where all cameras are off. (I do that in all my training courses.)

This effect might also explain the rise of the new social media audio-only app Clubhouse. It’s also a great relief to those of us who have to prepare full hair and makeup for every video call, and raise the computer, set up the lighting, and move the microphone into place. With audio calls, there’s no visual prep to do. What a relief!

Remember that not all calls have to be video calls. Phone will often do just as well.

Intensive mirror image viewing

Have you noticed that you can’t help watching yourself on screen to make sure you look OK, even when someone else is talking? The risk is that you’re not making eye contact with the other participants. It’s also been found that looking at yourself in the mirror or on camera amplifies the risk of critical self-evaluation and reducing self-esteem.

I get round that by using speaker view and ensuring my thumbnail image is centred under the web cam. That way, even if I am looking at myself, it appears that I’m making eye contact.

It’s not easy to stare down a camera lens. Other people stick a Post-it with an arrow pointing to the webcam, or stick a photo of a loved one there, so they feel as though they are talking to a human.

Another option. Once you’re set up and framed properly, you can hide ‘self view’. But remember you’re on camera – other people can still see you – so make sure you don’t do anything untoward.

Divided attention

There is a study that showed that movement can improve cognitive performance, for example, walking on a treadmill enhanced creative and divergent thinking compared with sitting. Have you had a good idea while out on your daily walk? I know I have.

If you’re on an audio-only call, you can do other things at the same time, such as doodling, cooking or moving around. (Note that brains can’t really multi-task. Rather, it’s a case of constantly shifting attention.)

To address this, you might choose to walk around when trying to think of new ideas, or get a standing desk so you can stand when you present.


Reduced blink rate

Blinking is important to keep the cornea lubricated, remove debris, bring beneficial substances to the surface of the eye.

We usually blink an average of 18 blinks a minute. But staring at a screen can decrease this rate by 66%.

Japanese researchers have shown that a low blink rate reduces levels of the MUC5AC protein in the tear film, which is essential for good vision and to protect the eye.

To counteract digital eye strain, follow the 20:20:20 rule – every 20 minutes, look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This relaxes eye muscles and increases blink rate.

To encourage your participants to look away from their screens, you could invite them to describe what they see outside their window, or to find an object in their house that represents the theme of the session.

Source: Bausch


1 Comment

Jackie Barrie · 18 Mar 2021 at 9:33 pm

Caelan Huntress from eSpeakers identified these four problems:

1. Compulsive distraction (such as social media)
2. Lack of movement (sitting in front of the same screen all day)
3. Monotony of place (sitting in the same home office all day)
4. Learning new tech (getting familiar with Zoom and other tools)

I agree with his solution: “Play is the antidote to Zoom fatigue”.

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