Conducting your work and social life via video chat is more draining than it sounds.

By Claire Gillespie
May 26, 2020
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The first couple of times were fine. We couldn’t see one another’s faces in real life, but they were still there, inside 3-inch by 4-inch rectangles on my laptop screen. Sometimes they froze mid-conversation or disappeared altogether, but they came back pretty quickly. We exchanged our COVID-19 ups and downs and did a lot of waving until, one by one, we said our goodbyes as we slipped away to deal with dinner or kids. 

I’d been excited about my first family Zoom call—the only thing on my now-vacant social calendar for months—but the experience didn’t leave me feeling fulfilled and comforted. Instead, I was exhausted and just missed everyone more. 

There’s no doubt about it—we’re going through a Zoom boom. According to CNBC, the video conferencing service said daily users spiked to 200 million in March, up from 10 million in December. While Zoom and similar apps can help keep us feeling like we have a social life, these platforms have downsides, too, one of which is "Zoom fatigue." That's the kind of video chat exhaustion I've been dealing with. I'm hardly the only one tired and stressed by the prospect of another Zoom call.

What is Zoom fatigue, and why we're all feeling it

One reason video chatting can be more tiring is because we have to work harder to interpret non-verbal communication. “When we interact with people face to face, we're not only listening to their voices and looking at their faces—we're picking up on social cues, like hand movements, body movements, and even a person's energy,” Brian Wind, PhD, co-chair of the American Psychological Association and adjunct professor in Vanderbilt University’s psychology department, tells Health. 

We're so used to doing this face to face that we don't realize all of the effort the brain puts into daily conversations. But when we’re on Zoom or another type of video chat, the brain has to work overtime to process the information. “It isn't picking up the social cues it's used to identifying,” explains Wind. “This places stress on the mind and uses up a lot of energy, which is why you might feel exhausted or stressed after a long Zoom call.”

And then there’s the experience of seeing ourselves on screen—something we generally don’t deal with when we interact with people in person. “This creates a feeling of being on stage and is often accompanied by a compulsion to perform, which also requires more energy than a simple interaction,” Diana Concannon, PsyD, psychologist and dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, tells Health.  

Video calls I occasionally have to make for work can be awkward and arduous, too, but I was surprised to find that Zooming (or FaceTiming, or Skyping, or whatever) is even more draining when it’s the people I love most in the world I’m talking to.

“Video calls demand our full attention,” therapist Grace Dowd tells Health. “When we’re face-to-face or on the phone with loved ones, we are able to engage our brain in other activities, like folding laundry, going for a walk, or cooking dinner. We can break eye contact with the person while still using other non-verbals to communicate that we’re listening. But when we’re on a video call, there’s an unspoken expectation that we give our full attention.” 

This deprives us of the benefits of just being with another person, explains Dowd. Remember when you could go for a walk (shoulder-to-shoulder, not six feet apart) with your best friend? You might not have had a deep conversation about your feelings, but when you got home you felt as if the weight on your shoulders was a little lighter. 

Because our brains are highly associative, we might think of video chats with family and friends as “work,” adds Dowd. “This is why, for example, therapists and doctors recommend that you do not work in your bedroom—it may become hard to rest in a space that has become associated with work,” she says. “When it comes to Zoom calls, aside from the participants and purpose of the conversation, the ritual is the same—we set a meeting, send an invite, and jump into the call.”

One of the many things the pandemic has taken away is the ability to rely on external reasons for not being able to do something social. Unless we’re still working, what excuse do any of us really have for not finding time for a 30-minute Zoom call? As Dowd says, there’s an expectation that we do not have much else going on right now, and we no longer have our usual excuses for not joining a video chat if we’re simply not feeling up to it. 

Ending a Zoom call with family or friends when you're feeling tapped out can also be tough, unless you're completely honest and say, “I need to take some time for myself.” And this kind of honesty "can be really hard to communicate, because it means we have to acknowledge our own personal boundaries and limits,” says Dowd. “We have to be vulnerable with the people around us and trust that they will honor these limits and not make us feel guilty for saying ‘I wish I could, but I am taking some time away from screens today.’” 

Various other factors can add to an overall sense of Zoom fatigue. “People are worried about presenting themselves well, making sure their internet is working up to speed, and keeping kids quiet in the background,” says Wind. And then there are the inevitable technical issues. Throw sound delays and the ensuing awkward silences/talking over each other into the mix, and it becomes even more stressful. 

How to dial it back 

If you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, there are things you can do to make this type of communication less stressful. Dowd suggests looking at how you’re spending your time outside of these calls. “Set up a time during the day for a digital detox where you put away phones, computers, and tablets and focus on something else,” she says. “Trade your e-reader for a paper book or turn your phone on airplane mode for an hour or two. Take some time to be in nature on the weekends. Giving our brains time to reset and focus on non-digital stimulation can help us recharge and feel more mentally prepared to go into our Zoom calls.” 

Another good tip is to not use your camera and only focus on people's voices. “This will stop you from scrambling to look for which person is talking and watching them talk while your brain subconsciously searches for social cues,” says Wind. “When you’re only listening to voices, it becomes more like a podcast, and your brain doesn't have to work quite as hard.”  

Concannon suggests balancing video chatting with text messages, particularly group texts, which can be an effective way to stay connected, ensure everyone is safe, and share pictures and videos. She also recommends replacing some video socializing with old-fashioned phone calls: “It’s surprising how intimate a voice-only connection can feel after hours of being boxed in with scores of video others.”

As for me, I still have weekly video chats with my family, but we’ve turned them into quizzes—and it’s made the experience more enjoyable and less tiring. We take turns to talk, there are no awkward silences, and when the quiz is over, we say our goodbyes. The rest of the week, we keep in touch with voice calls and group texts, discussing everything from what we’re watching on Netflix to global politics. It turns out, as I'm realizing, you don’t have to see someone’s pixelated face to feel connected to them. 

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