We’ve been covering a lot of quarantine-related content lately. If you’ve kept up, you’ll already have seen articles about how lockdown has negatively affected our sleeping patterns, how new social distancing rules have ushered in an age of quarantine-shaming, and how all the bad news has us all experiencing compassion fatigue. Now we have a new problematic kid on the block, and one that’s possibly harder to avoid than some of the others: Zoom fatigue.
Video calls have become such a massive part of our lives during this pandemic, that it’s hard to maintain any semblance of normalcy without them. We’ve already published some ways in which you can make your Zoom meetings more meaningful, and about how people are using it to keep their social lives intact. What we haven’t yet mentioned is that, slowly but surely, a lot of us are coming to hate video calls.
It’s great to see friends. It can lower our stress levels, give us a good laugh, and double as a therapy session. Now that we need to keep physical distance between us, of course we’re going to do everything we can to stay connected with the people we care about. That could involve any number of video calling applications, on a wide range of screens. There’s one thing that all video call platforms have in common though, and that’s that – despite the fact that we can do so in our pajamas – they can feel a lot more draining than real life meetings.
Why are video calls so damn tiring?
1. Our minds are together, but our bodies aren’t
“People feel like they have to make more emotional effort to appear interested, and in the absence of many non-verbal cues, the intense focus on words and sustained eye contact is exhausting,” they write in an article for TED.
In addition to that, when interacting with someone, our brains process a lot of information unconsciously, through things like body language. Now, without many of those signals, we’re actually working harder to process information and create meaning.
“On a video chat,” write Sander and Bauman, “We need to work harder to process nonverbal cues. Paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. Our minds are together when our bodies feel that we’re not. That dissonance — which causes people to have conflicting feelings — is exhausting”.
This increased cognitive load can, without us even realising it, make us feel pretty drained and in need of a nap. That’s without considering the fact that staring at a screen for long periods of time in general tend to sap our energy, and make our eyes physically tired.
2. The environment is stale
Though it’s not always thought about much, where we meet actually matters. Sander and Bauman write that the simple act of moving from room to room for meetings at work can have an energising effect. There’s the walking, which is a good way to refresh ourselves, and there’s also a change of scenery to wake us up and make us feel more alert. Many who work from home are holding all their meetings– business and social– in the same space, and don’t do much walking other than to grab a fresh cup of coffee or a snack from the kitchen.
But not having different spaces for work and down time can be emotionally exhausting. We can never leave the office to go home, because the office is home. This lack of designated spaces for work and play leaves a lack of boundaries that we then need to put energy and thought into negotiating.
“The physical environment acts as a cognitive scaffold — we attribute certain meanings to meeting rooms — and this subtly changes our behavior,” say Sander and Bauman. If all our meetings are being held from our bedrooms and living rooms, it’s no wonder we’re struggling to resist the urge to be horizontal.
3. Technical difficulties
When we have a real life conversation we don’t have to deal with lagging audio, pixelating screens, and frozen displays. Sure, we may not always know if someone’s actually listening to us, but at least we know they’re still there and we aren’t just talking to ourselves like idiots.
Not to mention, if you’re using Zoom and not paying for it, they’ll kick you out of your own conversation – forcing you to set it up all over again – every 45 minutes (hell when you’re in the middle of quiz night). If Zoom were a person, this would obviously be pretty rude behaviour, so it’s no wonder many have switched over to using its friendlier competitors. Unfortunately, these are no less prone to the pitfalls of using the internet in a developing country (and one that’s known for load-shedding blackouts– though mercifully, not during lockdown).
It’s also a lot harder to hear one another in video calls in which much of your utterance gets cut off if there’s ANY sound coming from someone else’s environment. Where in real life we may talk over each other from time to time, and conversation flows seamlessly between speakers, we’re now forced to leave pauses between speakers and ask everyone to repeat themselves, which can feel awkward and unnatural. In short, even relaxing social gatherings have become hard work.
4. How do you escape?
We can no longer get out of our meetings and coffee dates with the excuse that we have other places we need to be, because we aren’t allowed to be anywhere else. Your friends are probably well aware that once you hang up, you’re going to grab a snack, sprawl out on the couch and resume play on your Netflix binge. There is nowhere to run.
Kathleen Walsh writes for the New York Times that the “quarantine has essentially dissolved the normal boundaries that once dictated social etiquette. Before the pandemic, you were unlikely to be surprised by a morning call from a relative or to schedule back-to-back hangouts with different groups of friends”.
“Initially, pondering months of isolation from friends and family, people needed to feel connected. Now that quarantine is just how we will live for the foreseeable future, how do you disconnect?”
Feeling obligated to accept every call and participate in multiple Zoom hangs every evening can be exhausting, more and more so as the lockdown continues. It’s becoming apparent that we need to learn how to set boundaries in our social lives, even while we feel like we don’t really have one.
How can we prevent fatigue?
First and foremost we need to ask ourselves one very important question: “can this meeting be an email?”.
Limiting the amount of time we spend on video calls is the simplest (and most obvious) way to prevent Zoom fatigue. Perhaps some of those face-to-face video calls can be replaced with normal phone calls. At least that way your eyes will get a break, and there’ll be fewer things to focus on at once.
Relocating to various parts of the house where possible may be a good way to keep yourself from falling asleep on your keyboard, but of course, not all spaces are conducive to work.
Manyu Jiang at the BBC recommends building “transition periods” in between video meetings. “Try stretching, having a drink or doing a bit of exercise, our experts say. Boundaries and transitions are important; we need to create buffers which allow us to put one identity aside and then go to another as we move between work and private personas.”
In addition, Walsh stresses that we need to learn to decline invitations when we’re feeling overwhelmed. We don’t really need elaborate reasons to decline the quiz night invitation, we just need to be honest about the fact that we can’t handle staring at our screens anymore.
“Being forthright about why you’re unavailable is not only better for you psychologically, but is also more understandable than a weak excuse, which can eventually make those who are reaching out to you feel as if you’re blowing them off.”
Parties aren’t fun if you’re joining them out of a sense of obligation. Video calls with friends definitely can be a great way to unwind during quarantine, but if you’re not in the mood for another one, it’s a surefire way to ruin your day and leave you feeling tired and grumpy.
“If you need a delicate exit from a draining conversation, or you’re suddenly getting calls from a long-lost acquaintance,” she concludes, “it’s OK. Go ahead and pretend your delivery order just arrived.”