It’s 7:56 p.m., and I’m just crawling out of bed after a post-work catnap. I have a Zoom “happy hour” in four minutes, so I take a few minutes to dab concealer under my eyes and on a zit on my chin. I run a brush through my hair, throw on a shirt that doesn’t scream “I was just asleep,” and log on. This is my fifth call of the day, though the first four were business related. I have four more online meetups with friends on my calendar for this week.
And I’m worn out.
I have what experts are calling “Zoom fatigue,” a very particular kind of exhaustion that results from constant face-to-face digital interactions, both professional and personal. Mental health experts have been encouraging everyone to stay connected during this pandemic to combat loneliness. But at least some of us have overcompensated — a Google Calendar booked up with video calls has its drawbacks too.
“These Zoom meetings require a lot more focus and attention than a regular meeting because there are 15 faces looking back at you,” explains Vaile Wright, PhD, the American Psychological Association's director of clinical research and quality. “There’s a lot of focusing and refocusing, and it takes mental energy to read faces on video. Because of this, your brain is working harder than it would normally have to in order to figure out who’s speaking, engage in the conversation, follow along, and contribute.” There are also fewer nonverbal cues to rely on, such as body language or touch.
On top of that, we’re more prone to self-consciousness on video calls, explains Roger McIntyre, a Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Toronto and the CEO of AltMed. You can see yourself on the screen too, and you’re never completely sure when someone is looking at you. “Typically, in social interaction, I’d expect you to be looking at me, yes, but I wouldn’t feel like I’m the only focus of your line of sight,” McIntyre says. “On Zoom, it looks like everyone’s looking at you but you never know who actually is. That means you’re a bit more vigilant, especially on a multi-person call.” At least a portion of your inner monologue is turned over to thoughts like: Does my chin look weird when I sit this way? How’s my hair? Does the painting in my background look artsy or odd?
Then there’s the content of the calls. Often, they become just another place to talk about the coronavirus. It makes sense, but if you’re also already being inundated with COVID-19 news, this type of communication can make you even more anxious.
On top of all this, it’s hard to hang up. All your normal reasons for saying goodbye are gone, and the people you’re speaking to know it. You aren’t going to the gym early tomorrow morning; you don’t have to start getting ready for a dinner date. As a result, the calls have a tendency to stretch on for hours.
Ultimately, we’re trying to treat Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and Houseparty like they’re equivalent replacements for IRL get-togethers — but they’re not. “Our brains aren’t wired to be on Skype or FaceTime four to 10 hours a day,” McIntyre says. “I can’t be convinced there’s anyone who’d rather spend a Saturday night doing a Zoom party over a real party.”
As additional proof that video conference is a whole different beast, McIntyre says that people who are naturally extroverted may be hit harder with Zoom fatigue. They’re used to being social, so they’re likely tempted to add more “virtual happy hours” to their calendars. That makes them more vulnerable to burnout.
But they’re also more likely to feel frustrated by the natural drawbacks of Zoom. Extroverts are adept at reading social cues — those little facial expressions and posture shifts that indicate whether someone is listening or engaged. Those are way harder to see on Zoom. ”You’re looking at someone’s head on an inch-by-inch computer, and you might be more sensitive to all the cues you’re missing that you’d have in real life,” McIntyre says.
“Extroverts spend a lot of time thinking about everyone else's intentions, and moods, so they’re probably going to be more drained from all the extra focusing they’re having to do,” McIntyre says.
Introverts, then, aren’t as vulnerable to Zoom fatigue, since they’re less likely to overbook themselves and tend to be less outwardly focused on calls. That said, they may be more likely than extroverts to feel drained by the self-consciousness McIntyre mentioned earlier (Does my hair really look like that?).
If Zoom fatigue is hurting your vibe, there are things you can do to fight the phenomenon. Start by cutting back on how many hangouts you schedule, and limit each call to 30 minutes, max, Wright says. Focus on having quality conversations, rather than a large quantity of them. Having fewer, shorter meet-ups is worth it if you actually feel connected and happy to be on each one, rather than burned out and irritable.
Of course, that brings up another problem: How do you hop off a call early, when everyone knows you have nowhere else to be? Remind yourself it’s okay to assert your needs, find a lull in the conversation, and be direct, suggests Wright. Say: “I’m going to hop off now.” If you still feel uncomfortable, add a compliment, such as, “It was really great talking with you.” You don’t need to give a reason, though if you want to, it’s fine to be honest and say that you’re tired and need a Zoom break. Many people are feeling the same way, says Wright.
The same goes for turning down a call entirely. Be clear and direct: “I can’t then, but how about X day instead?”
Another way to combat Zoom fatigue is to center your video calls around an activity, suggests Wright. If you and your friends are cooking together virtually, or watching a movie as a group on Netflix Party, there’s less pressure to be focused on a conversation. It also provides you with a natural out. (Movie’s over, you’re done.) Think of it like work meetings. When they have a clear purpose, they tend to be more productive. When they meander and you start wondering why you’re even there, they’re frustrating and draining. When it comes to video conferencing, the same can become true of social gatherings. Create a clear purpose for being on the call; if you don’t feel the need to “catch up” for the third time in one week, suggest an activity.
The bottom line: There’s no need to feel guilty for wanting to log off a little more often. Early on during the pandemic, we heard a lot about how critical it was to stay connected. But we’re still learning about the best ways to do that as social distancing measures continue. “How we were looking at video conferencing as a way to combat loneliness at the beginning of pandemic needs to evolve,” Wright says. “We just need to be more judicious about how we’re using Zoom, and let it go sometimes, whether that means just sending an email instead of video calling or finding another solution.”