We’re suffering from Zoom Fatigue. Really, it’s a thing.

A study says video meetings exhaust us for interesting reasons. (Everyone, please stop looking at me.)
This Zoom meeting was a catastrophe.
This Zoom meeting was a catastrophe. [ Zoom ]
Published March 3, 2021|Updated March 3, 2021

I’ve never been good at meetings.

Okay, so maybe nobody loves them. But even gatherings around the conference table with doughnuts somebody brought, colleagues I liked and goals I agreed with made me antsy. As the minutes ticked by, I’d wonder if we might have accomplished this with a memo.

Then came the pandemic that changed everything, including those old-school, in-person meetings. I miss them.

Now we video-meet on Zoom, Skype, Slack — pick your platform — staring at each other and, worse, ourselves, on our screens.

Why does video-conferencing seem so much more taxing?

Because it is, according to recent research from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and for some pretty intriguing reasons.

Not that screen meetings don’t have their small advantages. There’s the option of attending barefoot in yoga pants, or the off chance, at least when we were first getting used to all this Zooming, that a colleague rented a goat, llama or miniature donkey to crash and liven things up.

Without Zoom, we would never have been gifted with that recent court hearing that went viral in which a lawyer says he could not turn off a filter that gave him the face of a kitten.

Tessa the goat, lower right, sat in on a Zoom meeting with the team from 62Above, a creative digital branding agency in San Diego.
Tessa the goat, lower right, sat in on a Zoom meeting with the team from 62Above, a creative digital branding agency in San Diego. [ TC Strategic Communications ]

Even before the Stanford study, this phenomenon had a name: Zoom Fatigue. The study took a close look at the psychological consequences of spending hours on video chat platforms, also known as “nonverbal overload.”

First off, there’s just too much up-close eye contact.

Remember back when we all sat in a room looking at the person who was talking? In video chats, everyone is looking at you. Which, for obvious reasons, can be seriously stressful.

Also, the study notes, faces on these calls can sometimes appear unnaturally large, akin to someone right in your space.

“Think about that — in one-on-one meetings conducted over Zoom, coworkers and friends are maintaining an interpersonal distance reserved for loved ones,” the study notes. Awkward.

In fact, the Stanford News reported, the brain can interpret being that physically close as an intense situation that could lead to mating or conflict. This can leave participants who’ve been video conferencing for hours “in this hyper-aroused state,” according to communication professor Jeremy Bailenson, who authored the Zoom Fatigue report.

And no question, being forced to constantly see yourself — your every expression and movement — is just hard. You’ve heard of actors who say they can’t stand to watch themselves onscreen? These days, that’s called the weekly staff meeting.

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The study points out that in these meetings, we’re generally stuck sitting in one spot, which makes it hard to feel comfortable moving around. On video, it takes more mental energy to express ourselves through non-verbal communication, like showing somebody you agree with them, and harder to interpret a colleague’s gestures and expressions, too.

No wonder we’re exhausted.

The study helpfully offers up things we can do — good news for both now and the pandemic’s aftermath, when plenty of workers are expected to keep on telecommuting.

Suggestions via the Stanford News: Use your keyboard to increase personal space between you and all those faces. Set up your camera farther away so you can move and even walk around.

And here’s a big one, assuming the boss is amenable: Periodically go audio-only, particularly during long stretches of meeting, to give yourself a breather from being ever-present on video.

And when those live-and-in-person meetings do come back, I’ll even bring the doughnuts.