Eoin Whelan: How your face can lead to Zoom meeting business fatigue

The end of the pandemic may be in sight, but for many, virtual meetings will continue to be a way of life
Eoin Whelan: How your face can lead to Zoom meeting business fatigue

Zoom fatigue and the over-reliance on face-to-face  meetings online is becoming a factor for workers.

If you are worn out by virtual meetings, take comfort knowing you are not alone. 

Even the chief executive of Zoom admits to suffering from Zoom fatigue, the unofficial diagnosis assigned to the tiredness and burnout associated with the constant use of videoconferencing platforms.

While I would question the veracity of many neologisms describing our more recent battles with digital technology, Zoom fatigue is very real indeed. 

Researchers in Microsoft recently analysed the brain activity of people attending back-to-back virtual meetings. 

The average activity of beta waves—those associated with stress—increased significantly over time. 

Zoom fatigue

So Zoom fatigue is not all just in your head. 

And the problem is not going away anytime soon. 

The end of the pandemic may be in sight, but for many, virtual meetings will continue to be a way of life.

To develop solutions, my colleagues and I are currently conducting our own research study into the causes and consequences of videoconferencing fatigue. 

While our preliminary findings validate the often cited triggers such as poor internet connection, background distractions, and the awkward small talk, we also uncovered a less recognised stressor: The exaggeration of non-verbal signals. 

Let me explain. 

Imagine you are in your fifth virtual meeting of the day. 

Your boss is discussing a new health and safety initiative about to be rolled out across the organisation. 

You are not really that interested and more concerned about what’s for dinner. But you have to feign interest. 

After all, your boss and all your work colleagues are staring directly at you through the laptop screen. 

You are gently nodding your head in agreement. It's your tried-and-trusted office routine. 

But now you are unsure whether your small boxed face on the screen is demonstrating your commitment to the cause. So what do you do? 

You nod your head like a woodpecker, hold a constant fake smile, and wave your hands around in a manner that any Italian would be proud of. W

Whether you are engaged with the discussion or not, displaying such exaggerated body language through a screen is draining.

So why do we do it? In face-to-face meetings, our feelings and attitudes are largely conveyed by non-verbal signals such as facial expressions, the tone and pitch of voice, posture, and gestures. 

Eoin Whelan says a possible reason we over-animate on video calls is the mirror image of ourselves present on most platforms.
Eoin Whelan says a possible reason we over-animate on video calls is the mirror image of ourselves present on most platforms.

We tend to display and process such cues with very little effort. In a video chat, however, we need to work a lot harder to process non-verbal cues, but also to display them.

Exaggerating non-verbal signals is not only draining, it also leads to pain. 

One IT consultant who participated in our study managed to knock a hot coffee over themselves while gesticulating their passion during a video sales pitch. 

Another explained how they now experience significant jaw pain from holding a constant smile pose at client meetings. 

While previously I disparaged the emergence of digital neologisms, I’d now like to coin one of my own – Zoom jaw.

Another possible reason why we over animate on video calls is the mirror image of ourselves present on most platforms. 

Researchers in Stanford University found that an increase in “self-focused attention” triggered by the self-view in video conferencing, contributed to feelings of exhaustion. 

When in the presence of a one-inch mirror of ourselves we may subconsciously believe we are inanimate, and over-compensate as a result.

While company policies such as no-meeting days and scheduled breaks between video calls will certainly help alleviate fatigue, one simple change we can make for ourselves is to enable the hide self-view feature available on most video call platforms. 

But don’t turn off the video. 

Your work colleagues may enjoy watching you spill coffee over yourself.

  • Eoin Whelan is senior lecturer, business information systems, at the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway

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