When people began to realize they’d be working from home, they made some changes, quickly. One of those changes was downloading the Zoom App. As early on in the pandemic as April 1 of 2020, the company was able to report a 300 percent increase in daily usage. It seemed like in a matter of weeks everything moved to the platform. Workout classes, college classes, doctor consultations, happy hours — all of those things are now happening on Zoom.
When the switch to living virtually happened, you may have felt excited, thinking about all the time you could now spend at home and all of the nuisances of office life that you could avoid. No chit chat with that one coworker you can’t stand. No obligatory birthday parties in the break room interrupting your workday three times a week. No pesky memos about refilling the ink cartridge. You may have thought this change would leave you feeling more energized. Now, you might have realized something else: you actually feel more fatigued than you did when you went into an office. If that’s the case, virtual meetings may have something to do with it. Even though we can literally take them from our bed, that doesn’t mean they’re restful. Here are the real reasons Zoom fatigue happens.
The pressure to be on in a limited time frame
Think about what happens when you meet anyone in person for really anything. A work meeting, a social catchup, a tutoring session — there are the pleasantries involved. There’s an understanding that, sometimes, there will be dead air. The silence isn’t really uncomfortable. But the moment those interactions move to the virtual platform, it becomes quite formal. The meeting starts promptly at 2pm. That’s when you’re allowed into the meeting. And then there is this pressure to accomplish what you came to accomplish, in that little time frame, marked on your Google calendar for this Zoom meeting. You feel you must be alert, on, and performing at peak capacity, every minute of a Zoom meeting, in a way you don’t feel in IRL meetings.
None of the hormonal reward
While having meetings in person can be tiring for other reasons (driving, finding parking, waiting in line for your coffee, etc.) it is rewarding in a way that makes up for that. Humans are hormonally driven to be social. When we are with people – really with them, in the same physical space – our body produces hormones that make us feel good. But we don’t get those from Zoom meetings. We just get the tiring part of interactions, without any of the hormonal rewards.
All that eye contact
There’s another thing that happens when you take meetings in person: it’s understood that your eyes may wander. There isn’t some central focal point where you’re expected to look the entire time. You may glance out the window or take some notes. But on Zoom, there is this pressure to look at the screen the entire time, for fear that, if you don’t, you’ll be accused of not being present. So that means you’re making a lot of eye contact – more than feels comfortable for most humans.
Stress about your surroundings
We’ve all heard the horror stories of Zoom fails. It’s odd taking meetings from home because, at any moment, a naked toddler could run through the background or people might see that provocative poster you have on your wall. Even if you make your place perfectly presentable for a Zoom meeting, there is still stress surrounding the fact that you had to do that. In the back of your mind, there is a small fear that, somehow, something in your home environment will get you in trouble with work.
You’re staring at a screen even more
In-person meetings used to provide a nice break from devices. You got to step away from your computer, to meet in the conference room, and just look at people (and maybe your notepad) for an hour or so. Now, not only do we not get that break from our screens, but Zoom meetings mean we have even more screen time, which can be a burden on our eyes, leading to headaches and fatigue.
Trying harder to understand each other
Without realizing it, there are so many little non-verbal cues we pick up from others in IRL interactions. Someone’s posture. The tapping of a knee. The rate at which someone is breathing. A slight change in facial expression. Fidgeting. Adjusting. All of this information enters our brain, giving us a well-rounded understanding of how the people in that interaction are feeling and what they’re trying to express. But we don’t get those cues on Zoom, which can leave us feeling socially confused.
Too many people at once
Now take all of the realities of missed social cues we just discussed, and times that stress by eight. Or Ten. Or 12. However many people are on a Zoom call – take the stress you feel of not picking up one person’s non-verbal cues, and multiply it by that number. Feeling like you only have a fragmented picture of what everyone on a Zoom call is feeling is very stressful. It leaves one feeling vulnerable, and fearing they’re somehow mishandling the interaction.
Posture, posture, posture!
When you would attend in-person meetings, you probably felt comfortable getting, well, comfortable. Maybe you’d slouch. Or you’d kick your feet up on a nearby empty chair. You’d sit on the floor of the conference room if that’s where you felt your best, and you had a casual work environment. But on work calls, you can feel pressure to look perfect. You want to sit up straight, straighten your shoulders, and keep this perfect posture that’s quite exhausting. But if you don’t do it, you fear that you look like you don’t care.
We’re there, but we’re not
With Zoom meetings now in our lives, we get to have one foot in the meeting, and one foot in something else, all of the time. Your meeting is on your computer, so you might be sending an email or checking social media or pulling up a recipe on the side. You might even do other tasks, like prep dinner, while on a Zoom call. You’re always multi-tasking which, more than saving you time, can leave you feeling tired.
A sense of intrusion
You likely never expected that Dan from marketing would be on your kitchen counter. He’s not, but his face is on a screen that’s on your kitchen counter. The faces of everyone on your team are on the living room table, between your kid’s toys and your family photo albums. There can be this sense of intrusion and the feeling that the home is no longer a sacred escape from work.
Staring at yourself is stressful
Research has found that staring at ourselves for a long time is actually stressful. It turns out that we’re much better at accurately assessing the facial expressions of other people than we are at assessing our own. We didn’t really have to face that reality before Zoom had us staring at our reflections multiple hours a day, and thinking, “Damn. I make a weird face when I’m confused.”
It’s hard to speak up
In an IRL meeting, people can tell when you want to speak. For the most part. You’re usually seated around a circular table or at least one that allows everyone to get a good look at everyone else. People can tell just from a shift in your posture that you have something to say. On a Zoom call, it’s very hard to tell when anyone wants to speak, so you have to force your way into the conversation, which is exhausting. Especially for women who already feel they must do this in real life.
The more people on the call, the more stressful this element becomes. There’s FOMO around what’s happening in every square. You’re used to being in the same room with people, and having a general sense of what everyone is doing. You can see everyone either straight on or in your peripheral vision. On a Zoom call, you only see what someone is doing by looking at their square. Then you worry you missed something in the other squares. It’s not natural to feel there is a lot happening around you that you cannot see.
The video vs the chat
There’s a lot to keep up with on Zoom, too. If the host leaves the chat active, then you have people messaging the whole group, and also sending you private messages. You feel pressure to keep up with the chat, as well as with the actual meeting. You don’t want to ignore that private message but you don’t want to miss what the boss is about to say.
There’s little, none, or awkward small talk
You don’t get any of the small talk that you get in an office when you simply walk down the hallway, to the meeting, with colleagues. Or when you arrive a few minutes early and chat with colleagues in the conference room. That small talk has a way of helping one transition from the previous task to the meeting. Now, the change feels abrupt.