I recall the first time I experienced this phenomenon. After a three-hour graduate course online—without any brain breaks facilitated by the professor, mind you—I logged off and continued to stare in the direction of my laptop. I had to blink several times to restore moisture to my eyes and shake my head to “wake up” and pull myself away from the screen. All of a sudden, my brain was bombarded with multiple messages to move my restless legs, take a bathroom break, check in with my dog, review my daily to-do list, call the doctor’s office before closing, so on and so forth. It was as if all other thoughts and functions were on pause as I was plugged in. I didn’t like the feeling at all. Instead of ending class feeling inspired and motivated, I was drained and exhausted. It made me feel as if I had “lost” the last three hours of my life, forgetting entirely the value created in this class meeting. I was experiencing “Zoom fatigue.”

People are spending more time in front of a screen than perhaps ever before in human history. Many are resisting this new normal and the phenomenon of burnout from video conferencing is growing. So, what is it about screen time and video conferencing that is so exhausting? What are some steps we can take to cultivate an awareness of its effects on our mental health? And, more importantly, how can we prevent video conference burnout to ensure physical, social, and emotional wellness?

1. We don’t even know we’re tired.

Blue Light from screens artificially keeps up alert and awake which means we may stay engaged at a screen for longer than the body—and mind—can really handle. Blue light interrupts the body’s circadian rhythms, the release of hormones that make us sleepy and signal to us to go to bed or at least rest for a bit. Combine that with additional screen use, and even more blue light, as we use our phones and stream entertainment before bed and our bodies simply can’t send us the “go to bed” signal.[1] The irony in this particular situation is that because sleep is so essential for our overall health, and for our immune system resilience in particular, we are not only tiring ourselves out, we are compromising our ability to fight viruses if we do confront them. Loss of sleep and increased risk of contracting a risky virus is a potentially dangerous combination.

 

Avoiding Blue Light Burnout: It turns out that there are several options for limiting exposure to blue light. Some of these require the purchase of a resource and some require a little bit of discipline or habit formation on your part.

  • Filter the blue light. Blue light filtering products help to filter the harmful spectrums of blue light and can help save our eyes from the strain of excessive screen time. Use blue light glasses while working or install a blue light filter over your computer or device screen. Most mobile devices now offer a blue light setting that you can take advantage of as well.

Set timers to take breaks. When working on a project, if you are prone to get into a “zone” or “flow” only to blink and 2 hours have gone by, then simply set an alarm. Eye strain from increased screen use (with or without harsh blue light) can be alleviated by brief rests. Look away from the screen for 60 seconds (in the direction of natural light, if possible) and your eyes and circadian system will have the opportunity to reset.

2. We get to see people, but not interact with them.

First of all, seeing people on video is kind of confusing to our brains. When we video conference, we are not just replacing a live meeting or conversation with a screen and a camera; engaging via virtual meetings is actually a really intense cognitive task for us in terms of our senses and perceptions.[1] Facial perception input is either singular (in speaker view, to the neglect of others in the space) or overwhelming (in a gallery view, looking at everyone in the meeting at once). The mind is designed to filter the incredible amounts of information it takes in through the senses so that we don’t become overwhelmed by everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. If you consider that the contemporary human mind has had thousands of years to develop this ability, then it is not outside of the realm of logic to propose that the human mind will require adapting to interactions in a virtual space.

Secondly, as much as we are coping with social distancing, this is not a replacement for physical interaction. [2] The brain processes the image of a face and accesses memories but there are no scents or pheromones that follow, as they would in a physical space. There is no opportunity for embrace and things like body language and other forms of nonverbal communication are severely limited.[3] The human brain is wired for social contexts. We are not the kind of animal that moves through the world solo, like a shark. We’re more like fish; we feel comfortable and safer in the company of a strong community. And that’s something that has had to be sacrificed in recent times. Each time we see people and talk with them in an online space, our brains have to continually adjust to the fact that our interactions are limited to sight and hearing.[4] And that’s a lot of work for the mind while we’re working, talking, listening, and making sure nothing embarrassing is in the background at the same time.

 

Avoiding Social Withdrawal/Overload: Any challenges related to mental health that are exacerbated by social interaction may be taking on new forms in video conference contexts. Social anxiety, isolation, loneliness, and countless others could be manifesting in new and different wants. Being more aware of how online communication affects you can help.

  • Some people are more comfortable being on screen/in the spotlight. If you aren’t one of them, there are some options. Consider adding a professional picture to your video platform profile so that when you have to step away, the image of you looking present and focused is there. It may take the pressure off of the performative aspect for a moment to consider these possibilities:
    • What does it look like to be “engaged” online? Which large group meetings are essential?
    • When is it possible to meet in smaller groups of people?
    • When is it acceptable to turn off your camera?
    • Would it help to hide self-view?
  • Communicate and/or make sure you understand expectations. We have been video meeting for months now, and still haven’t developed clear processes or standards of etiquette so we’re all just working off of our own understanding of what is professional, and that is not a productive or sustainable way to go about it—although the American Psychological Association has some suggestions. See if you can get some clarity or communicate more clearly to your team. Ask yourself, and invite others to reflect upon the following:
    • Have any of your expectations of yourself been communicated by others?
    • Are you putting a higher expectation on yourself than others are? Are your expectations reasonable?
    • Are you using Zoom as another means of self-flagellating? Another avenue for perfectionism?

 

3. We are communicating/performing non-stop and in a new format.

When people (in pre-COVID times) are assigned to work from home or remotely there can be an increase in meetings, emails, and other “checkpoints” in order to create an infrastructure that can ensure accountability and smooth collaboration for teams. This can quickly become overwhelming as processes that were once organic become formalized and structured. Not all minds appreciate that approach. At the same time, the informal socializing of work culture is lost. Employers acknowledge that time spent over lunch, conversing in the halls, and chatting in the mail room add value to the work environment. And now, not only is that gone, we are limited in our social interactions overall, so the limited contact we do have somehow becomes more important, if unconsciously. People are eager to show their efforts when they work from home, so they may not feel the need to appear extra engaged and present. And that effort—of being “on” for eight hours straight—is unsustainable.

 

In addition, it is taxing on our minds to look at our own face for an extended period of time. This is perhaps the most fascinating factoid I learned while researching this blog post. Even a person with a healthy relationship with herself and above average self-esteem would find this disconcerting. It is simply not normal for the brain to process our image for hours on end. The ongoing orientation to an image of yourself is additional cognitive processing required on top of everything else we are trying to pay attention to during a video conferencing session. It’s exhausting.[1]

 

Avoiding Video Conference Fatigue:

  • Schedule meetings intentionally. During normal times, unless we were meeting in the same space, we couldn’t schedule back-to-back meetings, so why do it now? Add time for yourself between meetings where you step away from the screen. Perhaps communicate to your colleagues that all meetings will be 50 minutes instead of 60. If you facilitate meetings, include some break time.
  • Handle tasks by phone when possible. It seems that even small tasks merit a Zoom call these days, but pre-COVID 19 that wasn’t the case. Not everything warrants a video conference and a phone call can be made without looking at a screen, and maybe even while walking around your workspace. Save your eyes for the times when it is essential to meet face-to-face.

[1] “Blue light has a dark side. What is blue light? The effect blue light has on your sleep and more. Harvard Health. Updated 7 July 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

[2] Hanson, Kara. “Eye to eye: Video conferencing and the perception of consciousness. Awake & Alive Mind https://medium.com/awake-alive-mind/eye-to-eye-video-conferencing-and-the-perception-of-consciousness-5005752ae6e3

[3] Blank, Steve. “What’s missing from Zoom reminds us what it means to be human.” https://steveblank.com/2020/04/27/whats-missing-from-zoom-reminds-us-what-it-means-to-be-human/

[4] Varakin, D. A., Levin, D. T., & Fidler, R. (2004). Unseen and unaware: Implications of recent research on failures of visual awareness for human-computer interface design. Human-Computer Interaction, 19(4), 389–422. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327051hci1904_9 https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-00463-009

[5] Liberles, Stephen. “Mammalian Pheromones.” Annual Review of Physiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4310675/

[6] Sklar, Julia. “Zoom fatigues is taxing the brain: Here is why it happens.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/

Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D.
Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D.

Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Writing and a student in the M.S. Family Therapy Program at Nova Southeastern University. Her research interests include identity construction, experiential learning, and mindfulness. She is a contributing editor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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