Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: Are you suffering from Zoom Fatigue?

The transition to online learning and working has been necessary - but at what cost? So asks Dr Michelle O'Driscoll
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: Are you suffering from Zoom Fatigue?

Zoom, Teams and other online platforms are going nowhere fast. The neuroscience behind the effect they can have on our energy levels is fascinating. Picture: Stock

ARE you spending exponentially more time online than usual, due to remote working? Are you connecting with colleagues and clients virtually rather than the usual face to face? Then you and thousands like you may be familiar with Zoom Fatigue!

Research into this phenomenon — which is not exclusive to the Zoom online platform — is increasing, as people anecdotally describe a tiredness and feeling of being drained, despite the seemingly less onerous task of attending these meetings without the added requirements of a commute and parking.

So great has the evidence behind this experience been, that a new measurement scale has been developed, called the ZEF (Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue) scale.

This transition to online learning or working has been necessary, and we’re thankful to have had the ability to adapt in this way in order to protect loved ones while still continuing to educate our children and make a living. Going forward, there are benefits for the environment too, with a significant reduction in transport and associated emissions.

It’s interesting to explore and understand the neurological processing behind this Zoom fatigue, and identify ways to potentially combat it.

Challenge: Lack of body language is a big reason for Zoom Fatigue. When all you have is a headshot, you’re limited in what you can pick up from a person’s stance, hand expressions and other cues. This leaves your brain trying to work harder to fill in the blanks and interpret the more limited visuals in front of you.

Solution: Arrange some Zoom meetings from a standing desk, or position the camera back a bit, so that your full range of expression is captured. Others may begin to do the same, and it adds to the authenticity of the engagement. Standing rather than being slouched over your desk is also excellent for your physical health. Win-win!

Challenge: Multiple environments are in front of you at the same time, in the form of the rooms people are in, or their backgrounds. The brain must process all of these, along with the important meeting information, rather than just having the one uniform environment of a boardroom or canteen to register mentally.

Solution: Depending on the meeting, is there a need to view every person’s screen? Sometimes just opening up the document being discussed and minimising the visuals can be helpful, like a good old-fashioned phone-call. See if that helps to reduce the brain-load.

Challenge: Technology is great when it works, but as we have all experienced, Zoom and other meeting platforms are not without their technical glitches. Whether it’s somebody forgetting to unmute, or not being able to see the chat function, or just a delay in the internet line, all of these contribute to ‘interference’ in the brain, and slowing down our own thought processes.

Solution: For delays on your side, investing in good wifi and software is really helpful, but otherwise the technical issues are out of your control and scheduling regular breaks during longer meetings and between meetings is helpful to reset.

Challenge: Zoom has cut out the informal chat — the ‘watercooler’ conversations, so to speak. It’s generally a ‘log on, get to the point, log off again’ type of encounter. This leaves little room for human engagement which nourishes our wellbeing and supports our cognitive functioning, hence the feeling of depletion that we can experience.

Solution: This is easily addressed, by balancing those meetings with some more informal catch-ups over a virtual coffee, or else by making a point of not starting a meeting officially until 5-10 minutes in, and allowing the space for those interactions that would otherwise naturally occur as you were settling yourself in a meeting room.

Challenge: How natural is it to be looking back at yourself constantly? In an everyday conversation, not natural at all. And what this does is serves to heighten our self-scrutiny and often our self-criticism. Even if it’s only subconsciously, we are drawn to the image of our face, and can start to ruminate on what we don’t like, what other people must be thinking of us, dealing with a constant feeling of being front and centre. This is in contrast to what normally happens, when we cannot see ourselves, and therefore give far less attention to these things, and instead give our full attention to the conversation at hand.

Solution: Adjust your screen view to remove yourself, simple. No need to be looking back at yourself — focus on the people in front of you, just like you would in real life. This gives your brain the opportunity to process what it needs to, without that added scrutiny.

Zoom, Teams and other online platforms are going nowhere fast. The neuroscience behind the effect they can have on our energy levels is fascinating. Identifying some of the above issues and making moves to resolve them can regenerate some of that lost engagement, and boost wellbeing for remote working.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally. See www.intuition.ie

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