Don’t Use Zoom Fatigue as a Convenient Scapegoat for Exhaustion

Updated: Jan 22

Todd Zakrajsek

University of North Carolina School of Medicine


Key statement: The term “Zoom fatigue” masks other relevant and overwhelming sources of fatigue (life demands, screen, and social) that need to be addressed to restore physical and mental well-being.



Man in plaid shirt with eyes closed and tattooted hands covering his face
Image by Ayo Ogunseinde via Unsplash
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” -Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Background

“Zoom fatigue” and “videoconference fatigue” first began appearing in print in the Spring of 2020. Interestingly, Zoom was founded in 2011, WebEx dates to 1999, and Polycom dates to 1990 (before the internet). It seems strange that for decades we made it through videoconferencing, video-based online courses, and daylong meetings without writing about videoconference fatigue. Even the name “Zoom fatigue” is interesting. Why Zoom? Is Zoom worse than the other platforms? Researchers at Stanford even developed a Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale, so it seems we have settled on Zoom being a primary culprit (Ramachandran, 2021). It is likely that as Zoom was the most widely used videoconference platform at the time, and as people were tired while on Zoom, people attributed the tiredness to Zoom. As Zoom fatigue is the term frequently used, I’ll use that term, rather than videoconference fatigue, throughout this article.


Confounds and Generalizations


Individuals have been under an incredible amount of pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of this pressure, it is not surprising at all to see increases in responses such as burnout, depression, and anxiety. These are independent constructs and not considered to be the same thing (Koutsimani et al., 2019). Treatment plans for burnout are very different from those for depression or anxiety. How does one know which treatment to seek out? By identifying the cause and symptoms, one begins to address the root cause of the issue, not simply finding something to blame when experiencing increased feelings of irritability, finding it difficult to solve problems, lacking motivation or energy, or other symptoms. “Zoom fatigue” presents the same issue. Individuals are feeling increased levels of physical and emotional exhaustion. The question is not whether we are fatigued. The question becomes, why are we fatigued? We are on more videoconference calls than ever, so it feels reasonable to put increased fatigue and increased Zoom together and claim Zoom causes fatigue. But is that accurate?


If Zoom is to blame for our increased fatigue, we can identify behaviors to reduce fatigue resulting from many online meetings. However, if our fatigue, or even some of our fatigue, is from another source, then reducing tiredness means uncovering the root cause(s). To open the conversation, let’s break Zoom fatigue into three categories: life demands, screen time, and social demands.


Types of Fatigue


Fatigue From Life Demands

The first category is life fatigue. I have been in education for over 35 years—and for most of that, I have been tired. Naturally, this fatigue is worse in a pandemic or other natural disaster. When very tired people log into a Zoom meeting, it is natural to attribute the fatigue to Zoom. However, a break from Zoom will not address life fatigue. An article in The New York Times stated, “By April of 2020, during the first big Covid spike, homebound working Americans were logging three more hours on the job each day” (Covert, 2021, para. 4). In addition, we were homeschooling children, our routines were disrupted, colleagues were ill, and we spent an inordinate amount of time searching for toilet paper. Multitasking, such as cooking or ironing while on a conference call, was common. Multitasking can be particularly exhausting. Most individuals are extremely tired just trying to get by, Zoom or not. Addressing this category of fatigue requires much more than turning the video off during a Zoom meeting. Following are just a few suggestions:

  • Try to schedule breaks at regular intervals across the day, even if they are very short. Two to five minutes can reduce fatigue and increase productivity. Resist the urge to let work fill the gaps in your day, such as clearing out a few emails before going to bed.

  • Carve out a bit of time for self-care each day, such as yoga, meditation, a short walk, or just sitting quietly. To find that time, increase efficiencies where possible. Save a minute or two when fixing dinner, while picking up the living room, or knowing exactly where your car keys are located. Those minutes will add up.

  • Enlist help from your support system and delegate tasks when possible.


Fatigue From Screen Time

The second type of fatigue attributed to Zoom fatigue is being tired simply due to working with a screen. This is not a new phenomenon, and researchers were studying the effects long before extended Zoom sessions swept the nation. It is common to experience fatigue on a computer. The following are a few strategies to reduce screen fatigue. A computer search will reveal many more, but don’t spend too much time on the computer looking for ways to reduce computer fatigue.

  • The 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. It helps reduce eye strain and mental fatigue.

  • Every hour stand up, get away from the computer, and take a five-minute break.

  • Individuals often become dehydrated through a long day in front of the computer. Be sure to drink enough water throughout the day.

  • Try reversing your computer documents so the background is black and the words are white. This reduces eye strain.


Fatigue From Social Demands

The third category of fatigue results from the social demands of participating in a videoconference. This, I would consider legitimate Zoom fatigue. This is different from general computer work, as social interactions with multiple people are involved. Video meetings, conferences, classes, or any other human exchange on the computer differs from being in person. When we are physically together, many cues help us interact efficiently. When someone in a group would like to speak next, they start to talk and stop quickly, shift in their seat, or hum in agreement. These signals are missing in videoconferencing, so it is more challenging to identify who will talk when. In addition, video conference calls with many participants cause faces to be small on-screen, and additional cues are lost. Because we are lacking cues, we overcompensate to find the ones we still have, which means we stare directly ahead at the screen and give our complete focus more than we would in an in-person meeting. Some individuals also find it exhausting to see their own image on their screen. Monitoring and participating in the chat is added energy, like having conversations with two people at once. Finally, it is much easier to mistakenly stack meetings one after the next so that we leave one meeting and join the next meeting seconds later with a click. Aside from removing breaks, that shift causes mental fatigue as we adapt to each changing event.



Dark blue feather and inkwell with the word Reflect

Below are a few suggestions to reduce actual Zoom fatigue:

  • Schedule breaks between videoconference meetings

  • Reduce multitasking, such as answering email while on a conference call

  • Turn off your self-view (if the situation allows) if seeing your own image is stressful

  • Identify cues for speaking, such as raising virtual hands.



Restorative Steps


Dark blue feather and inkwell with the word Transform

Many people talk about Zoom fatigue, but often the fatigue they feel is actually from life or other computer work. There is such a thing as Zoom fatigue, but not all fatigue experienced while on Zoom is Zoom fatigue. Zoom is a convenient scapegoat for the fatigue we are all feeling. Still, we need to identify the underlying culprits creating the fatigue we experience in order to reduce the stress and strain that leaves us exhausted. To break the cycle of fatigue, we must accurately identify the source(s) and implement healthy measures to restore balance. This may be as easy as modifying our behavior to include scheduled breaks and practicing self-care. It may also mean seeking professional help to restore and support our physical and mental wellbeing.






Discussion Questions


1. Which factors during COVID-19 cause increased fatigue for you? If you could be granted access to resources that would reduce fatigue, what resources would you request?


2. The three types of fatigue noted in this article are certainly not an exhaustive list. Select one of these three, or one of your own, that has been particularly challenging for you. You do not have to share anything that you do not wish to share but think about how you have responded to that challenge. If you were to face a similar challenge in the future, what might you do differently to address the area of fatigue noted?


3. When the pandemic is over, and it will be one day, what can you do in the future to reduce fatigue due to being on Zoom calls or videoconference meetings?






References


Covert, B. (2021, July 20). 8 hours a day, 5 days a week is not working for us. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/20/opinion/covid-return-to-office.html


Koutsimani P., Montgomery A., & Georganta, K. (2019). The relationship between burnout, depression, and anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 10, 284. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00284


Ramachandran, V. (2021, February 23). Stanford researchers identify four causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and their simple fixes. Stanford News. https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/23/four-causes-zoom-fatigue-solutions/



Additional Resources


Sheppard, A. L., & Wolffsohn, J. S. (2018). Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmology, 3(1), e000146. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjophth-2018-000146


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