Image for Combating Mental Fatigue from Back-to-Back Video Chats

Six months ago, only a handful of people had participated in a Zoom or Teams conference call. Now, studies find there is creeping video meeting fatigue. It’s prevalent enough that some workers have yearned to return to the drudgery of commuting and in-person meetings.

Before the pandemic, people scampered from meeting to meeting, sometimes hopping on a plane or train to do so. Now, people stay at home and hang out on their computers all day endlessly talking, listening, brainstorming and collaborating. You save a lot of time, but you also spend a lot of time staring silently at a rectangular screen. Your only exertion may be to mute and unmute your microphone.

Priti Shah, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, says, “[Video conferences] are more demanding cognitively than face-to-face meetings, which rely a lot on visual cues. It is easy to tell if people are paying attention, whether someone wants to speak and whether they are agreeing or disagreeing.” At a physiological level, humans tend to blink less often when looking into a computer screen.

Ironically, Zoom or Teams conference calls are intended to allow people to meet face-to-face, but making eye contact is often more difficult, especially if people turn off their computer cameras, participants talk over each other or not everyone is visible on-screen because there are so many participants on the call. And then there are distractions such as children shouting or dogs barking in the background. Technology hiccups don’t help, either.

To combat fatigue – and frustration, experts recommend taking regular breaks, limiting video chats to 30 minutes and finding a comfortable ergonomic posture. A short walk or meditation before a video chat can sharpen your wits. Separating your Zoom or Teams “studio” from the rest of your work or home space also helps. Google “Zoom fatigue” and you will get more advice from EntrepreneurFast Company and Harvard Business Review.

“Video conferences are more demanding cognitively than face-to-face meetings, which rely a lot on visual cues.”

Technologists are going further. Microsoft has introduced two new options for its Teams app. Together Mode places video participants in a shared digital space, as if they were all in the same physical room attending a meeting. Dynamic View permits participants to optimize shared content and personalize the view of others in the video session. 

Research using biosensors has found video conference participants exert less effort when they are in a common setting. They also are less distracted by the varying and often curious backgrounds of other participants. Research also shows that giving participants more control over what and how they see others on a conference call can avoid the fatigue of looking at people in boxes.

The expanded use of video conferencing during the coronavirus pandemic is only one of the ways work has been affected. People have carved home “offices” out of bedrooms, kitchens and even closets. The 9-to-5 workday has been replaced by a more relaxed, rolling work schedule. Extensive travel is being replaced by online interaction. Screen time has increased exponentially.

Mobile workers already had deserted “home” offices in downtown skyscrapers in favor of neighborhood coffeeshops or other internet-friendly hot spots. The pandemic has erased that option, too, consigning mobile workers to their homes, along with a spouse, children, roommates and pets. Since the pandemic is still raging, video conferencing will remain a crucial means to stay in touch, communicate and conduct work.

Visual overload is a real thing, which should be taken seriously. Avoid falling into a rut. Take some video conference calls standing up. Don’t be afraid to move around during a call or turn off the camera for an in-session break. If possible, don’t schedule or agree to back-to-back-to-back video interactions.

Don’t be timid about suggesting an occasional throwback meeting – on the phone.