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Z is for Zoom Fatigue

By Komal Samrow

Artwork by Trisha Srivastava

I remember the satisfaction of hitting “Leave Meeting” in my final class of senior year in high school. Click.

The window closed, the camera shut off, and I leaned back in my chair, staring at the ceiling in contemplation. In many ways, that moment was meant to mark the end of an era for me. I was to leave behind everything familiar– my home, my parents, my town for the new professors, new friends, and new city that awaited me in undergraduate life.

At that moment, however, only one thought ran through my mind: Thank goodness I’m done with Zoom class.

Ever since the pandemic began, along with millions of other students and working people across the world, Zoom has become an inextricable part of my everyday life. It's an invaluable tool, responsible for having sustained some semblance of classroom engagement for students and the livelihoods of countless teachers in the face of overwhelming restrictions– and while as a student I was extremely thankful for that, it didn’t change the fact that being glued to a laptop for 8+ hours a day made me miserable.

In fact, ever since the innovation of “zoom school,” I’d found myself more tired, irritable, and sore than I’d ever been during a normal school year. Worst of all, I began disliking classes that I’d once genuinely enjoyed in person. I’d always assumed that sleeping in, staying at home, and not having to get ready or go out would rejuvenate me– but to my confusion, each passing day I felt my mental stamina and motivation draining. Like many of my peers, for long I ignored the contradiction and instead ascribed my discomfort to the common exasperation we’d all seemed to experience at the hands of the pandemic imposed lockdowns.

But while Zoom may have become the norm for many of us during the pandemic, what I felt, what countless of my peers and I shared in exhaustion and fatigue was not normal. And for many of us, after months of struggling we couldn’t help but wonder: why are we feeling this way?

What is Zoom Fatigue?

A concept that has emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom Fatigue is the sensation of being absolutely exhausted from having to interact with other people on any form of videoconferencing for extended periods of time.

We’ve all felt it. After a day glued to online meetings or classes, the achy legs, sore eyes, exhaustion, and total depletion of our social batteries. In school, students’ complaints were often written off by skeptical teachers as a lame excuse for lazy students for their sub-par work post pandemic. Upcoming research, however, legitimizes Zoom Fatigue as a very real phenomenon - and the long-term consequences of zooming on concentration, social anxiety, and physical fitness have yet to be accurately determined.

Why does Zoom Fatigue occur?

1. Excessive and close-up eye contact is a source of stress.

There’s a reason staring contests are so short, and after one or two we’re typically done. In real life, when we’re in a meeting our focus is constantly shifting. Our eyes dart across the room, from our colleagues to our notes to the clock on the wall, and it’s those seemingly insignificant shifts away from the speaker that act as relief from the stress of eye contact. On Zoom, however, we are constantly treated as speakers– making eye contact with a collection of faces that is always staring back at us. It emulates public speaking, which for many, is a very stressful experience.

There’s also the matter of proximity and size. According to Jeremy Bailenson, Stanford researcher and author of the first journal to discuss the concept of “Zoom fatigue,” conversation on video “simulates a personal space that you normally experience when you’re with somebody intimately.” The intimacy of video calling leads our brains to interpret the proximity as a sign that we’re in an intense situation, which keeps us in a hyper-aroused state. In other words, we’re on constant high alert– and it’s mentally exhausting.

2. Staring at oneself fuels self criticism.

Do you enjoy staring at yourself in the mirror? If the answer is yes, good for you. But imagine staring at yourself throughout your entire day– meeting people, getting coffee, having conversations, making decisions– how long could you keep it up?

There’s a reason we don’t stare in mirrors 24/7. Humans are prone to self-criticism, and seeing a constant reflection of ourselves on Zoom as we host meetings, answer questions, and receive feedback or criticism is wildly stressful. Looking at ourselves for so long, we’re forced to grapple with our perceived flaws in a setting that isn’t particularly conducive to acceptance and growth– our oily hair, enlarged pores, and imperfect skin feel all the more noticeable when surrounded by colleagues or peers. One study had 50 participants look at themselves in a mirror in dim lighting for one minute, and found that 66 percent of participants reported seeing “deformations” in their face afterwards. If those are the impacts of a single minute looking at oneself, one has to more seriously consider the implications of the hours we spend each week with our “Zoom reflections.”

3. Lack of mobility.

There were too many occasions throughout my senior year that I took less than 1,000 steps during the day. And I know I’m not alone.

The problem with video-conferencing is that it limits our movement to our camera’s field of view, which keeps us still for however long we’re on the call. Not to mention that aside from the occasional break to stretch, the migration of office work to our laptops means that even after a call ends, we stay seated to continue working. Zoom etiquette also requires that as a courtesy, we limit our movement on Zoom because it can be distracting for other members on the call.

While you don’t need a lecture on the physical harms of a sedentary lifestyle, developing research has also suggested that our cognition improves when we’re moving– which points towards a possibility that the lack of mobility imposed by Zoom poses concerns not only for your physician but for your boss too. Studies show that walking improves creativity, so even the walk to and from meetings is a valuable cognitive booster lost to Zoom.

4. Difficulty in interpreting nonverbal cues.

Zoom conversation is not the same as in-person conversation.

One of the most important parts of face-to-face interaction is the interpretation of non-verbal cues: i.e. a smile, a nod, or one’s body language and tone. In-person, that interpretation is easy and natural– but on video, it’s much harder to send and receive those signals. The effect is that even simple conversations require a series of mental gymnastics that sap our energy. Research supports the conclusion that engaging in conversation online places a much greater cognitive load on us as we struggle to interpret others’ gestures and signals. Not to mention, for any newcomers to a workplace during the Zoom era, the lack of personal connection and sense of isolation imposed by the online setting can make it significantly harder to integrate oneself into the team. It’s not easy to build relationships across a screen, especially when each interaction proves to be such a stressful experience.

How to mitigate Zoom Fatigue’s effects.

For now, it seems that we’ll be stuck with Zoom for a while longer. But there are still ways to edit your usership of video-conferencing platforms to reduce the impacts of Zoom Fatigue.

1. Don’t use Zoom in full screen. Reduce the size of the window so faces are smaller.

Use the “hide self-view” button on Zoom so that you aren’t constantly staring at yourself while on call.

2. Use an external camera or keyboard to create distance between yourself and the screen, and increase your flexibility in movement.

3. Switch video off periodically while conferencing in groups for a brief period of rest. Use those moments with video off to turn away from the camera, walk around, or stretch.

For all the drawbacks of Zoom, research has also unveiled several benefits of video conferencing. A meta-analysis on social anxiety and internet use show positive correlations between social anxiety and feelings of comfort online, which suggests that for many, video conferencing is a less stressful alternative to in-person meetings. The diminished reliance on nonverbal signals also stands to increase our ability to weed out bias, by eliminating factors that otherwise influence how we perceive verbal information. For example, the impacts of physical features such as height which typically convey social dominance are diminished online, which means that we can focus more on what people are actually saying– not how tall they are.

I really believed that high-school graduation would mark the end of the “zooming” era for me– but the pandemic is still far from over. Of the six classes, I’m taking this semester at college, four meet on Zoom. Club meetings, dean’s gatherings, and office hours with professors all occur on Zoom. I spend hours a day staring at a screen.

And honestly? I’m learning to be okay with it.

No, college certainly isn’t the glittering bastion of social salvation I hoped for– but after confronting all the unprecedented challenges of the past two years, I’ve come to realize that we’ve all got a far larger capacity for adaptation and adjustment than we may realize. The pandemic has forced us to upend nearly every facet of our lives in the name of health and safety– and if all it means is making a few small adjustments to how we video-conference, minimizing Zoom Fatigue is a piece of cake.


About the author:

Komal Samrow is a student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Services, pursuing a degree in Culture and Politics. When not writing, Komal loves reading, cooking, and listening to music.

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