Experts call for fewer video meetings as research identifies causes of ‘Zoom fatigue’

Virtual calls are more tiring than in-person gatherings, academics argue, as commentators urge employers to give workers more control over their schedules

Researchers have identified a number of physiological causes of so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ – the tangible feeling of tiredness that follows a day of video meetings – leading to calls from experts for businesses to take the issue more seriously and avoid back-to-back virtual calls.

Academics at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab have said a combination of prolonged eye contact, constantly seeing yourself in real time, restricted mobility and the cognitive load of trying to compensate for the absence of non-verbal cues all contribute to that sense of tiredness many people get from video calling.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab and author of the first peer-reviewed paper on the causes of Zoom fatigue, said many of these behaviours – including spending long stretches of time making direct eye contact or looking at people's faces close up – are normally reserved for close relationships, but have now become the way people interact with acquaintances, colleagues and sometimes even strangers. 

During video meetings, users also have to work harder to send and receive non-verbal signals, while constantly watching their own faces on the screen “causes self-evaluation and negative effect”, Bailenson argued.

Dr Kitty Wheater, mindfulness chaplain and associate of the Global Compassion Initiative at the University of Edinburgh, said the paper helps affirm the experiences many people have had over the last year. “There can be a lot of pressure in workplaces to have video [turned] on – it can be another form of presenteeism, just in the digital space,” she told People Management

“Employees' capacity to turn their videos off will depend on active support from management; for example, an invitation at the start of or halfway through a meeting to turn off cameras. This is part of a bigger conversation about presenteeism and productivity pressures while working from home.”

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The paper also raised the question, Wheater said, of how to make sure employees still get the benefits of video calls, while taking steps to reduce fatigue. “I know from the reports of my students and staff that a relatively small meeting, where people get to see different faces from the ones they live with, can feel like a real boost on a day of working alone,” she said.

“Empathic inquiry from management, both about what people find difficult and what they find helpful, can be a good way to establish new customs within a team.”

Jacky Francis Walker, psychotherapist and mindfulness consultant, advised taking regular breaks in between virtual meetings and avoiding trying to multitask by answering emails during a video call. For employers, she said: “Don’t assume it has to be Zoom – use other channels to add variety and help people pay more attention.

“Keep meetings no longer than 30 minutes and keep them down to seven or so people, with no more than half a given day given to online meetings – and try to have one or two days a week Zoom free.”

Robyn Vesey, organisational consultant at Tavistock Consulting, said video meetings are often seen as an easy option for businesses. But she added: “What we’re seeing is that this understanding needs to be challenged, with the additional physiological and cognitive demands when it comes to relating at work online taken into our everyday work assumptions.” To combat this, employees needed to be given permission to schedule breaks and avoid back-to-back meetings, to allow time to process the content of calls.

“Organisations will need to consider whether they take a preventative stance – offering this permission in a universal way, rather than requiring a sense of a ‘condition’ that is being responded to with a particular offer,” said Vesey.

Siobhan Murray, author of The Burnout Solution, agreed. “As remote working is not changing any time soon, businesses and employers need to lead by example in how to manage the challenges their employees are encountering working from home,” she said.