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At first, video calls seemed like an ideal solution to the isolation of remote working. But it turns out they’re often more exhausting than face-to-face conversations.

For workers confined to home offices or unable to travel to in-person meetings, video calls have become an important tool for staying connected. But for all the benefits of platforms like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams, there’s a surprising downside: video calls can be incredibly draining. So draining, in fact, that the mental exhaustion has become known as ‘Zoom fatigue’. 

Gaps in conversation 

Why are virtual meetings more exhausting than face-to-face catch-ups? One of the main reasons is our brains need to work a lot harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tones of voice and body language – which account for as much as 90 per cent of communication – over virtual channels. 

“When you’re in a face-to-face meeting your brain can unconsciously attend to lots of different information – and a lot of the information we get from communication is non-verbal,” says Dr Libby Sander, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond Business School. 

“When we’re in virtual conversations most of those things are taken away, because even though we might be able to see the person on video, our brain has to try really hard to attend to those non-verbal cues, and that’s very draining for our brain.”

Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist with a special interest in technology, says much of the normal conversational framework is lost when we chat over video. “When we’re talking face-to-face, we can look at the whole person or people in the complete context that the information is being shared – in a board or meeting room, for example,” she says. 

“With video, we’re monitoring for non-verbal cues and information with much less stimulus. We get tiny 2D thumbnails of faces, often at weird angles with people looking in different directions and not at the person speaking. So the brain goes into ‘scanning mode’, trying to fill in the gaps to get enough information to make sense of what’s happening and receive the communication, ideas or actions.” 

Lack of rhythm

Not only is vital information hard to access, but video calls can also disrupt the natural rhythm of conversation, which causes stress and adds to feelings of exhaustion. It’s hard to maintain eye contact with one person, let alone a Brady Bunch style matrix of colleagues on your screen. The conversation doesn’t flow as easily, and interjecting is challenging. It’s difficult to create a collegiate mood without a coffee run or small talk before the meeting starts. 

“Research shows that sometimes we launch too quickly into things, whereas if we were face-to-face we would break the ice more by saying, ‘Did you have any trouble finding the place?’ or, if it’s a colleague you’re speaking with, ‘How was your weekend?’” says Nicole Hayes, a clinical psychologist and director of Emerge Psychology. Awkward silences can be especially awkward, says Dr Sander. “If someone pauses in a face-to-face conversation everyone is quite comfortable, but in a video conference we automatically assume it’s dropped out,” she says. There are even studies to show a mere 1.2-second delay in responding online makes people think you’re less friendly or that you’re not focused on the conversation.

People just don’t like looking at their own heads for hours. It’s quite exhausting and stressful, and it’s an unnatural thing because obviously in real life we can’t see our own face when we’re talking.

Dr Libby Sander

Tech fails

And, of course, there’s technology to contend with. People on mute, people not on mute, people wrangling screen shares, cameras pointed up noses and the inevitable internet drop-out can all cause disruption and fatigue. Not to mention worrying about children or pets interrupting your call. 

Many video calling platforms show your face in addition to those of the people you’re speaking with, and anxiety about how you look during calls is another source of worry and exhaustion.

“People just don’t like looking at their own heads for hours,” says Dr Sander. “It’s quite exhausting and stressful, and it’s an unnatural thing because obviously in real life we can’t see our own face when we’re talking.”

In fact, evidence suggests that looking at our own negative facial expressions, like anger and disgust, can lead us to feel more intense emotions than if we were viewing those same facial expressions in other people. 

Fighting fatigue

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news, and there is a lot you can do to reduce Zoom fatigue. One of the easiest strategies is to question whether you need to arrange, or attend, a video call in the first place. 

“We really need to rethink the nature and purpose of meetings,” says Brewer. “While we want to connect and feel a sense of belonging to a team, this is not best supported by long, arduous meetings that could have been an email or Slack channel conversation.” 

If a call is necessary, consider going without video. “A phone call is better in some respects for our brain because we only have to focus on one voice at a time and one input – we’re not trying to read body language or worry about how we look,” says Dr Sander. 

For times when video calls are on the agenda, Brewer recommends adapting the format based on the size of the meeting. “If there are over 10 people in a meeting but only several who will speak, only those with active roles should have video and sound on,” she says. “The role of questions and the chat features should be spelled out to help facilitate smooth communication so that all folks get an opportunity to share or speak without it derailing the meeting.”

Where possible, try to mimic a typical face-to-face meeting environment. Change your screen settings so you can’t see yourself, engage in small talk before you get down to business and schedule breaks between calls where you get up and move around.

It also pays to focus on what you’re gaining by meeting from the comfort of your own home. There’s no commute, no business wear and full control of the temperature dial. 

“If we’re clever and disciplined in how we use video calls, and set them up really well, it can work for us because we don’t have to commute, we can put a load of washing on then go into a meeting, and we can have our cat sit on our lap,” says Hayes, whose practice has been offering telehealth consultations to people living in rural and remote locations since 2018. 

“If we manage it cleverly, the convenience of video calls tends to mitigate all of the negatives.”