July 29th 2021
Zoom burnout: this is why online meetings are so exhausting, say neuroscientists
September 7th 2021 / 0 comment
It's been 18 months of online meetings and they don't look like they're going anywhere soon. There's a good reason why video calls are so draining. Here's what we can do
It’s 18 months since remote and hybrid working changed our day-to-day habits resulting in endless hours on Zoom, as we connect via screen not just with work colleagues but friends, families, book groups you name it. Our screen use has increased 135 per cent since the first lockdown, according to optometrist-founded eye care brand Peep Club. Depending on what industry you work in, that figure could be significantly higher.
Whatever video platform you're using, you've no doubt experiencing serious Zoom fatigue. According to neuroscience experts, our systems find staring so directly not just at our own but at other people's faces on screens unnatural - it gives us so much information to process. It's brain overload. Ophthalmologists too say it also makes us forget to blink leaving our eyes heavy and dehydrated.
“I have noticed fatigue from too much Zoom, not just cognitively but also physically and emotionally,” confirms neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Bak-Maier, founder of holistic coaching platform Make Time Count. “I see clients who have burned out from too much screen time from back-to-back meetings.”
Why are video meetings so much more tiring than IRL ones? After all, we've not had to haul ourselves there or worry about what we look like below the waist? Our experts explain.
1. Focusing on others triggers a stress response
If you’re prone to sitting stock-still on Zoom, this is likely to affect how tired you are. “Keeping focus on other people on Zoom while sitting rigidly immobilises our nervous system and neuromuscular system into what feels like a freeze response,” explains Magdalena. This is a stress response that our bodies detect and relay back to the brain, meaning a dose of stress is sent round the body. Not ideal when you’re just catching up on a work project.
2. Eye contact is intense
Normally in a face-to-face meeting, we’d look away from time to time. However, on Zoom this can seem rude and make it appear we’re distracted. “Looking away allows the eyes to relax focus and means our bodies are free to relax, whereas Zoom meetings drive the opposite reaction,” explains Magdalena.
Eye-to-eye contact, which we maintain throughout Zoom meetings is incredibly intense and can be overwhelming for some people, Magdalena says. You're up close with others' faces, staring into their eyes in a way that would only happen in real life if you were dating or in a similarly intimate situation
3. It's yet another way to fill our time with screen activity
Logging into Zoom calls between emails and other screen activity - we’re all guilty of scrolling through our phone as a break from looking at our laptops - means that your brain has to deal with a much higher intensity of information and it’s not sustainable, Magdalena says.
On top of this, we know that when we log off the video call, emails will have piled up, resulting in more information overload. “Every moment being filled creates anxiety, prolongs working hours and erodes our time to relax,” says Magdelena.
4. We can’t read body language
Without even knowing it we pick up clues from the people we're around, be it their body language or reading their facial expressions. This is trickier on video calls and our brain has to work harder to read the room, which can feel exhausting, says Magdelena.
In real life, we would see the whole person and our brain takes safety cues from other people's body language. Do we like them, are we relaxed around them? When you can only see a small part of the person and they are not moving, your brain is working overtime trying to read them, keeping you on high alert, trying to process the little information it has. If there are several people on your call, that effect is magnified.
5. It chips away at our self-worth
How many times do you see people fiddling with their hair or rearranging their facial expressions in Zoom meetings as if they were taking a selfie? We spend as much time trying to assess ourselves as we do others. In real life, we'd never had to attend a meeting, brunch or family do where we had to stare in the mirror for hours. “When you add worries about how one looks, which many people say is a concern on Zoom, to all the other factors, and we have a brain that is overloaded with much more information than would happen elsewhere," says Magdalena.
“The combination of ‘I’m being seen!’ and ‘how do I look?’ raises anxiety which has to be managed in real-time through composure. This means we have to exercise more self-control and this too is exhausting,” she continues.
A new peer-reviewed study from Stanford University released last month has identified four main culprits, as fellow neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart author of The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life, explains "excessive close-up eye contact, the strangeness of seeing yourself in real-time, less mobility and movement, and more effort required to send and receive nonverbal cues.”
As well as the difficulty of connecting with others through a screen, video conferencing forces us to confront how we view ourselves and the experience can be awkward and not very enjoyable, Tara says.
6. Tired, itchy 'Zoom eyes' are a thing
If you’re suffering from heavy, tired eyes that are red, itchy or overwatering, it's a phenomenon that the ophthalmologists at The Peep Club are seeing more of.
“Many new customers are coming to Peep Club with what they're calling 'Zoom Eyes’" says Natasha Salesm Peep Club's co-founder.
"One of the most striking symptoms is customers saying that they just can't stare at a screen anymore by the end of the day.”
When video calling (or looking at any screen) we blink six-to-eight times less than normal. "So your tears, which are like little sips of water for your eyes keeping them hydrated, are not replenished as often," Natasha explains. “Your eyes are essentially parched while you're on a Zoom call,” she says.
How to make Zoom less-tiring?
1. Stretch between (and during) meetings
As someone who hosts online events herself, neuroscientist Magdalena recommends creating a relaxed video-calling atmosphere where people don’t feel they have to have their eyes glued on-screen at all times. She also encourages frequent breaks during long video calls and advises stretching your body to ward off the 'freeze' stress response, which can happen when we're sitting immobile for too long.
2. Do eye yoga
Every 20 minutes look away from your laptop for 30 seconds, advises yoga teacher Mercedes Sieff, co-founder of Yeotown holistic detox retreat in Devon.
* Rest your eyes with 'palming. "Rub your palms together to get them hot and then press the base of your palms into your eyes, take a deep breath is to give the eyes a rest and wet themselves again," says Mercedes.
* Work your focus muscles. Take a pencil, holding it in front of your eyes and focus on it. Bring it towards and away from your face. Let your eyes follow it in circular movements without moving your head, giving them the chance to look in a different direction other than straight ahead.
* Face tapping. Gently with your fingers tap over your face once an hour to release tension, encouraging softness to the face.
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3. Turn off the video function or use Facetime
This will be music to the ears of ‘camera-off’ fans. Magdelena recommends turning your camera off when it’s not needed – during presentations where you’re just watching, for example, or opting for a good old-fashioned phone call where (digital) face to face isn’t necessary. Or try using Facetime if it's just two of you. You'll see the other person full length - more body cues to help you read them - while you'll be in a tiny window in the corner, too small to scrutinise your every 'imperfection'.
You could also make use of the 'hide my selfie' option on Zoom, beneath the three dots in the top right of your image. It means others can see you, but you no longer need to look at yourself. Just remember you've got it on before you start yawning!
4. Massage your eyes with an eye tool
If dry, tired eyes are your Zoom gripe, use Peep Club’s Eye Wand, £60, a heated vibrating massager, which is designed to alleviate dry eyes by stimulating said glands to produce tears that hydrate the eyes (eyes actually water because they're dry, to try and hydrate themselves). With more refreshed eyes maybe you'll find motivation for your third video meeting of the day...