What Are the Real Causes of Zoom Fatigue? And What Are the Possible Solutions?: New Research from Stanford Offers Answers

The tech­nol­o­gy we put between our­selves and oth­ers tends to always cre­ate addi­tion­al strains on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, even as it enables near-con­stant, instant con­tact. When it comes to our now-pri­ma­ry mode of inter­act­ing — star­ing at each oth­er as talk­ing heads or Brady Bunch-style gal­leries — those stress­es have been iden­ti­fied by com­mu­ni­ca­tion experts as “Zoom fatigue,” now a sub­ject of study among psy­chol­o­gists who want to under­stand our always-con­nect­ed-but-most­ly-iso­lat­ed lives in the pan­dem­ic, and a top­ic for Today show seg­ments like the one above.

As Stan­ford researcher Jere­my Bailen­son vivid­ly explains to Today, Zoom fatigue refers to the burnout we expe­ri­ence from inter­act­ing with dozens of peo­ple for hours a day, months on end, through pret­ty much any video con­fer­enc­ing plat­form. (But, let’s face it, most­ly Zoom.) We may be famil­iar with the symp­toms already if we spend some part of our day on video calls or lessons. Zoom fatigue com­bines the prob­lems of over­work and tech­no­log­i­cal over­stim­u­la­tion with unique forms of social exhaus­tion that do not plague us in the office or the class­room.

Bailen­son, direc­tor of Stan­ford University’s Vir­tu­al Human Inter­ac­tion Lab, refers to this kind of burnout as “Non­ver­bal Over­load,” a col­lec­tion of “psy­cho­log­i­cal con­se­quences” from pro­longed peri­ods of dis­em­bod­ied con­ver­sa­tion. He has been study­ing vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion for two decades and began writ­ing about the cur­rent prob­lem in April of 2020 in a Wall Street Jour­nal op-ed that warned, “soft­ware like Zoom was designed to do online work, and the tools that increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty weren’t meant to mim­ic nor­mal social inter­ac­tion.”

Now, in a new schol­ar­ly arti­cle pub­lished in the APA jour­nal Tech­nol­o­gy, Mind, and Behav­ior, Bailen­son elab­o­rates on the argu­ment with a focus on Zoom, not to “vil­i­fy the com­pa­ny,” he writes, but because “it has become the default plat­form for many in acad­e­mia” (and every­where else, per­haps its own form of exhaus­tion). The con­stituents of non­ver­bal over­load include gaz­ing into each oth­ers’ eyes at close prox­im­i­ty for long peri­ods of time, even when we aren’t speak­ing to each oth­er.

Any­one who speaks for a liv­ing under­stands the inten­si­ty of being stared at for hours at a time. Even when speak­ers see vir­tu­al faces instead of real ones, research has shown that being stared at while speak­ing caus­es phys­i­o­log­i­cal arousal (Takac et al., 2019). But Zoom’s inter­face design con­stant­ly beams faces to every­one, regard­less of who is speak­ing. From a per­cep­tu­al stand­point, Zoom effec­tive­ly trans­forms lis­ten­ers into speak­ers and smoth­ers every­one with eye gaze.

On Zoom, we also have to expend much more ener­gy to send and inter­pret non­ver­bal cues, and with­out the con­text of the room out­side the screen, we are more apt to mis­in­ter­pret them. Depend­ing on the size of our screen, we may be star­ing at each oth­er as larg­er-than-life talk­ing heads, a dis­ori­ent­ing expe­ri­ence for the brain and one that lends more impact to facial expres­sions than may be war­rant­ed, cre­at­ing a false sense of inti­ma­cy and urgency. “When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life,” writes Vig­nesh Ramachan­dran at Stan­ford News, “our brains inter­pret it as an intense sit­u­a­tion that is either going to lead to mat­ing or to con­flict.”

Unless we turn off the view of our­selves on the screen — which we gen­er­al­ly don’t do because we’re con­scious of being stared at — we are also essen­tial­ly sit­ting in front of a mir­ror while try­ing to focus on oth­ers. The con­stant self-eval­u­a­tion adds an addi­tion­al lay­er of stress and tax­es the brain’s resources. In face-to-face inter­ac­tions, we can let our eyes wan­der, even move around the room and do oth­er things while we talk to peo­ple. “There’s a grow­ing research now that says when peo­ple are mov­ing, they’re per­form­ing bet­ter cog­ni­tive­ly,” says Bailen­son. Zoom inter­ac­tions, con­verse­ly, can inhib­it move­ment for long peri­ods of time.

“Zoom fatigue” may not be as dire as it sounds, but rather the inevitable tri­als of a tran­si­tion­al peri­od, Bailen­son sug­gests. He offers solu­tions we can imple­ment now: using the “hide self-view” but­ton, mut­ing our video reg­u­lar­ly, set­ting up the tech­nol­o­gy so that we can fid­get, doo­dle, and get up and move around.… Not all of these are going to work for every­one — we are, after all, social­ized to sit and stare at each oth­er on Zoom; refus­ing to par­tic­i­pate might send unin­tend­ed mes­sages we would have to expend more ener­gy to cor­rect. Bailen­son fur­ther describes the phe­nom­e­non in the BBC Busi­ness Dai­ly pod­cast inter­view above.

“Video­con­fer­enc­ing is here to stay,” Bailen­son admits, and we’ll have to adapt. “As media psy­chol­o­gists it is our job,” he writes to his col­leagues in the new arti­cle, to help “users devel­op bet­ter use prac­tices” and help “tech­nol­o­gists build bet­ter inter­faces.” He most­ly leaves it to the tech­nol­o­gists to imag­ine what those are, though we our­selves have more con­trol over the plat­form than we col­lec­tive­ly acknowl­edge. Could we maybe admit, Bailen­son writes, that “per­haps a dri­ver of Zoom fatigue is sim­ply that we are tak­ing more meet­ings than we would be doing face-to-face”?

Read about the “Zoom Exhaus­tion & Fatigue Scale (ZEF Scale)” devel­oped by Bailen­son and his col­leagues at Stan­ford and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Gothen­burg here. Then take the sur­vey your­self, and see where you rank in the ZEF cat­e­gories of gen­er­al fatigue, visu­al fatigue, social fatigue, moti­va­tion­al fatigue, and emo­tion­al fatigue.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

In 1896, a French Car­toon­ist Pre­dict­ed Our Social­ly-Dis­tanced Zoom Hol­i­day Gath­er­ings

Hayao Miyazaki’s Stu­dio Ghi­b­li Releas­es Free Back­grounds for Vir­tu­al Meet­ings: Princess Mononoke, Spir­it­ed Away & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Patrick says:

    This seems to me the same social exhaus­tion that intro­verts like me feel any­way and on a dai­ly basis, only ampli­fied by the Brady Bunch screen.

    The arti­cle says: “Zoom fatigue refers to the burnout we expe­ri­ence from inter­act­ing with dozens of peo­ple for hours a day, months on end, through pret­ty much any video con­fer­enc­ing plat­form.”

    Now let’s re-phrase that for an intro­vert: “Social fatigue refers to the burnout we expe­ri­ence from inter­act­ing with dozens of peo­ple for hours a day, months on end, year after year, through pret­ty much any office envi­ron­ment.”

    Wel­come to my world!

  • David says:

    Zoom miss­es all the humuan inter­ac­tions oth­er than “face” — how about the effort require to get up, get on the train, sit in the meet­ing, chat infor­mal­ly as you pick-up your cof­fee at Cos­ta, bump into oth­er peo­ple or just inter­act with oth­er humans?

    These all desen­si­tise you from the very full-on glare of the video-con­fer­ence. And this seem­ing need to talk about every­thing all the time — what is wrong with get­ting on with your work and send­ing a quick email rather than con­stant­ly jab­ber­ing on about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it?

    Frankly, I can’t wait to get back to my nor­mal social life so that I can refuse Zoom meet­ings on the basis that I’m in a loca­tion where I can’t talk or don’t want to be seen. I’ll still do my work, but I’ll do it bet­ter if Big Broth­er, Sis­ter, Mum and Dad aren’t watch­ing me…

  • Jay says:

    “dis­em­bod­ied con­ver­sa­tion” like phones haven’t exist­ed for near­ly 150 years.

  • Liana says:

    thanks for info

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