Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of virtual meetings or video chats have been on the rise with more people connecting on computer screens for school, work, and social contact.
But all of this screen time can be tiring. ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a term coined in the COVID-19 era named after one of the video-conferencing platforms used for such meetings as people were finding themselves more exhausted than usual at the end of the workday.
Drs. Sara Mitchell, Ilana Halperin, and Philip Lam, members of Sunnybrook’s Virtual Care Taskforce weigh in on why video conferencing and virtual appointments can be exhausting and what you can do about it.
Why video chats can be exhausting
There are a number of reasons we can get worn out after a video meeting or conversation.
“Focusing on a screen for long periods can cause eye strain,” says Dr. Lam. “People are also often sitting in one position for long periods of time which can cause physical discomfort.”
On video-conferencing platforms, we can also see ourselves on screen, which can feel awkward and draining.
“When we’re looking at ourselves and speaking on a video screen, we’re observing ourselves in a way that we’re not used to in conversations,” adds Dr. Halperin. “This could also lead to self-criticism.”
Exhaustion doesn’t just happen during video calls for work. We can feel tired even when we’re meeting with family and friends on video chat.
This online, on-screen interaction is wearing us out because there’s also a lot going on in our brains.
Brain drain and video calls
“We require additional effort and sustained attention during video meetings,” says Dr. Mitchell, a neurologist at Sunnybrook. “The added strain on our attentional systems and other cognitive processes can leave us feeling exhausted.”
While communicating online can be convenient, it doesn’t come as naturally as speaking in-person and face-to-face, and that means our brains are working overtime to figure out what’s happening.
“As social beings we are well-trained to read and interpret non-verbal body language during in-person communication,” explains Dr. Mitchell. “However, when on the computer and in this two-dimensional space, we likely have to work harder to identify non-verbal cues. This can be even more difficult for people who are more reliant on non-verbal language.”
The ‘gallery’ view on-screen that displays multiple meeting participants can add to the brain drain.
“This forces our brains to have to decode and observe many people simultaneously which can be an added challenge,” says Dr. Mitchell.
Multiple alerts can also pop-up on-screen including email and messaging which adds to the strain with an added element of multi-tasking.
Technological glitches can also be source of stress.
“If the internet connection is poor the audiovisual quality may be reduced,” says Dr. Lam. “The user may have to concentrate harder on what is being heard or seen during video meetings which can be frustrating.”
“All of these challenges may be particularly difficult for individuals with cognitive or other sensory impairment, including those with certain neurological diseases,” adds Dr. Mitchell. “For instance, those with migraines and traumatic brain injury often find screens and multi-tasking particularly draining and triggering.”
Tips to help cope and combat fatigue on video meetings
Video-conferencing has its benefits, but virtual meetings don’t always have to be on-screen. Here are some steps to consider to change up your meeting and help ease the fatigue.
Turn off the computer camera: It may not always be possible to do so, but if you’re in a meeting where it is appropriate – consider turning off the computer camera.
“It may be possible that you say hello to everyone at the start of the meeting with the camera on and then if appropriate, turn the camera off while still participating and remaining online for the duration of the meeting,” says Dr. Halperin.
Alternative meetings: Instead of a video call, consider a phone call or teleconference.
“If you’re in a phone meeting, it may also be possible to go outside and take a walk while on the call,” says Dr. Halperin. “It’s a great way to get some fresh air while being productive.”
“This is also an energizing way to reduce screen time, increase exercise – which can improve mood and energy, and increase time outdoors which is also important for mental health and rejuvenation,” adds Dr. Mitchell.
Depending on the type of work you’re doing and if you’re in the workplace, going outdoors for a physically distanced walking meeting with a colleague may be possible, if safe to do so. Remember to wear a mask.
Turn-off alerts: While on a video call, turning off the pop-up alerts and notifications for emails and messages can help reduce multi-tasking and added stress. This can eliminate this distraction and help you focus on the task at hand rather than worrying about the alerts that are coming up on screen.
Take breaks: “Try to schedule in five to 10 minute breaks in-between virtual meetings or appointments,” suggests Dr. Lam. “Getting up from your chair to stretch and move can help prevent strain on your body, in addition to giving your eyes a break from the screen.”
Work-life balance: With many working from home, there can be a blurring of our personal and professional lives. It can be easy to jump onto the computer and start working a bit earlier or longer than usual. A work-life balance can help ease stress and screen time.
“Keep your personal time, for you. For example, the time you would have used to commute into the office could be used as more personal time,” suggests Dr. Halperin. “If it used to take an hour to commute into work, if possible, consider taking that hour and going for a walk, exercising or reading a book. Doing something you enjoy can help bring more of a personal balance to working from home.”
“As much as possible, try and separate work and home life to maintain boundaries,” adds Dr. Mitchell. “If available, use a separate room for working time and leave your work there when you leave,” adds Dr. Mitchell.
How taking a break from screens can help boost your brain
Going off-line has its benefits.
“Make sure you spend enough time in a day ‘device-free’ to allow your brain to recuperate and rest. Take that time to be present with those around you and observe the world, including nature to give your eyes a break from the screen,” says Dr. Mitchell.
Reducing screen time can also help to improve your quality of sleep.
“We know that blue light can suppress melatonin secretion, which is the natural hormone your body produces to regulate sleep-wake cycles,” explains Dr. Mitchell. “Turning off the screen with sufficient time before bed, up to an hour for instance, will allow for improved sleep hygiene which can improve energy levels the next day.”