Video calls
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  • There are several signs of 'Zoom fatigue'.
  • Chronic exhaustion at the end of video calls can have long-term mental and physical health effects, say experts.
  • There's a need for a greater understanding of the burnout that prolonged video calls can trigger.

DUBAI: Have you been on a video call and just really wished it was over? It's a downward mental spiral, and you increasingly feel helpless about it; exhaustion sets in after countless hours on Zoom till your brain gets toasted.

Or have you been on a video call and been thinking about everything else you could be doing — except being on that video call? All these, and more, could be signs you may be experiencing “Zoom fatigue”.

It’s a slang, which refers to a general feeling of exhaustion after a video meeting. It applies not only to Zoom, but also if you’re using Google Hangouts, Teams, Skype, FaceTime or any other video-calling tools.

It’s not just tiredness — but also worry and a feeling of burnout associated with overuse of virtual communication platforms.

Yes, it's virtual, but the travail is real

We all agree video chats are great, as they help us stay connected in isolation. But experts, including Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab, say it can also wear us out.

Fight or flight
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Because it's relatively easy to set up, there can be endless online meetings, chats (and lessons, modules, quizzes for students). But video calls can be such intense virtual interactions that can be “extremely hard” on the brain.

“There's a lot of research that shows we actually really struggle with this,” Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, told the magazine Wired.

Video calls
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Intense, completely new

So if you’re surprised at how difficult you find video calls — given that the medium seems rather “confined” to a small screen and has fewer overt distractions, you’re not alone.

In November 2020, Dr Jena Lee, explored the subject: “Like other experiences associated with the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom fatigue is widely prevalent, intense, and completely new.” Dr Lee, a child and adult psychiatrist at UCLA, wrote for Psychiatric Times, revisiting the mental fatigue process, based on the "internal-costs tradeoff" that happens in the mind unconsciously.

Like other experiences associated with the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom fatigue is widely prevalent, intense, and completely new.

- Dr Jena Lee, child and adult psychiatrist at UCLA

“At every level of behaviour, a tradeoff is made between likely rewards versus costs of engaging in a certain activity. The reward system accounts for alertness, energy and motivation — as opposed to fatigue,” she said.

Studies reveal that, using functional MRI data, live face-to-face interactions, when compared to viewing recordings, are associated with greater activation in the same brain regions involved in reward (ie, ACC, ventral striatum, amygdala). “So, more active social connection is associated with more perceived reward — which in turn affects the very neurological pathways modulating alertness versus fatigue,” Dr. Lee wrote.

Jena Lee
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So it turns out video calls are not just casual meetings. They are triggers for burnout. And in this pandemic times, not much is known about the double whammy of stress and the mental state of a COVID-changed world.


Zoom's most recent figures suggest the platform has 300 million daily meeting participants, compared to just 10 million in December 2019.

Work interactions have changed. Experts say it’s misplaced to think video calls are "more casual". However, with the new remote work phenomenon, some unwritten rules remain — to do better, do more with less. The pressure piles up. Video calls are useful in making this happen. Experts say, however, virtual meetings cannot compensate for face-to-face kind of interactions.

“For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,” Franklin told Wired. In a video call setting, there are no real social interactions, but work to be done is real. It’s a real human interaction, people must meet certain expectations, and the ability to wear flip-flops during the meeting is immaterial. 

• It’s the study of body language. Specifically, it studies human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction.

• Proxemics is one among several subcategories in the study of nonverbal communication, including haptics, kinesics, vocalics, and chronemics.

4 distinct 'proxemic' zones

  • Public (more than 12 feet)
  • Social (4-12 feet)
  • Personal (2-4 feet)
  • Intimate (0-2 feet)

The distance surrounding a person forms a space. The space within intimate distance and personal distance is called personal space. Psychologically, personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as theirs.

By default, most people value their personal space. They feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached. One big mistake people make is when they stay really close to the camera (all you can see is their nose). This triggers your brain to think someone is in an intimate space.

Moreove, experts say the prolonged eye contact in a gallery view of a video call has another unintended consequence: it has become the strongest facial cue readily available, and it can feel threatening — or overly intimate — if held too long.

Video calls
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Pandemic — and beyond

So it’s just a fact of life during this period, perhaps beyond it, this feeling of being so beat after a day of video calls, as we become part of the receiving ends of various video calls.

To many, it has become so commonplace, so overused, that a Stanford University researcher said early on that its “effects are real”.

Jeremy Bailenson
In the first deconstruction of this new phenomenon, Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior a peer-reviewed article on February 23, 2021 identifying the consequences of prolonged video chats that he says contribute to the feeling commonly known as “Zoom fatigue.”

“Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication,” said Stanford’s communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson. “But just think about the medium – just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to.”

Bailenson, founder of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), deconstructed the psychological consequences of spending hours on end each day on these platforms. He outlined four issues — and solutions:

1. High-intensity, close-up eye contact:

A video call involves excessive amounts of close-up eye contact, that’s highly intense. Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens is “unnatural”.

Ever noticed that went to people about to get into a fight, they get really close to each other face-to-face? That's a really invasive kind of presence. Same thing when people are about to greet each other with a kiss. They get in-you-face. While in a normal meeting, people will be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. On video calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time.

If you’re a listener, you are still treated nonverbally like a speaker. Even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. "The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased,” explains Bailenson.

Solution: Minimise face size, avoid getting too close to the camera. Also, don't let your video tool occupy the full screen. Reduce the size of videocall window relative to the monitor to “minimize” face size. Moreover, Bailenson recommends that use of an external keyboard. This would increase in the "personal space bubble" between oneself and the grid.

Gavi vaccine Representatives from 52 countries
In video conference meetings, the amount of eye contact is "dramatically increased,” explains Stanford University communications Professor Jeremy Bailenson.

2. Video call is like being followed around by a mirror:

It’s “unnatural”, explained Stanford’s Bailenson. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” he added.

Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing, he said. He cited studies showing people who see a reflection of themselves are more self-critical. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful (if you do this for many hours every day). And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror,” he added.

Solution: Until video platforms change the default mode of showing user’s video to both self and others (when it only needs to be sent to others), use the “hide self-view” button (if your video tool has that option).

Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is like being followed around by a mirror: it is fatiguing. Studies show that people who see a reflection of themselves are more self-critical.

3) Reduced mobility with video chats:

In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move. With videoconferencing, that’s impossible as most cameras have a set field of view. So you must stay in the same spot. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said.

Solution: Turning one’s video off periodically during meetings is a good ground rule to set for groups, just to give oneself a brief “non-verbal rest”, Bailenson recommends. Another solution: position an external camera farther away from the screen to allow you to pace and doodle in virtual meetings just like we do in real ones. 

4) Higher “cognitive load”:

Video calls almost completely discards all natural nonverbal cues and gestures people naturally make and interpret subconsciously. In video chats, people must work harder to send and receive signals. When the internet signal is bad, the problem is compounded. It has transformed one of the most natural things in the world — an in-person conversation — into something that involves a lot of thought, i.e. “cognitive load”.

From making sure your head is framed properly, to showing to someone you agree — you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. “That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”

Solution: During long stretches of meetings, give yourself an “audio only” break. “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen,” Bailenson said, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”