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Zoom Fatigue: What it is and how to combat it

Illustrated by Blaise Willis

By Ariana Moshiri     3/9/21 8:03pm

The Zoom call finally ends, and after waving goodbye to the rows of faces on your screen, you close your laptop and just sit there. And even if it’s just for a brief moment, you stare off into space, sometimes with burning eyes and a heavy head, and other times with a strong desire to just run off into a field away from all technology. We’ve all been there. 

Motivation and productivity seem a lot harder to come by these days. And the culprit might be the very platforms on which we’re doing our work. Zoom fatigue — the intense and prevalent exhaustion associated with the overuse of virtual platforms of communication — is real. It comes with anxiety, stress, exhaustion, burnout and just like many of the other experiences that have emerged with the pandemic, it is pretty new for us all. 

Kathleen Richardson, the associate director of case management at the Student Wellbeing Office, defines Zoom fatigue as “the psychological and physical stress of being on a videoconferencing platform for an extended period of time [that] can happen when you spend long hours looking at a computer screen with few to no breaks.”  

She says that inactivity, not taking breaks, never going outside and neglecting basic needs such as eating regularly, getting enough sleep and having some social outlets, all make Zoom fatigue much worse and more harmful to us. 

Chris Fagundes, a psychology professor at Rice, said that our new working habits and reliance on platforms like Zoom also significantly affect us on the cognitive level.  

“There is a delay in our conversation, in me seeing you and you seeing me, that’s ever so slight but it just makes our brain work unbelievably hard. Over time, that delay is causing an amazing amount of fatigue, even though we’re not noticing it in the moment,” Fagundes said. “When we talk to people, we’re looking for facial gestures — it really helps us interpret everything. And for a variety of reasons, sometimes when there are multiple people on the screen, we’re looking at other things and we’re not concentrating on those gestures. It’s also so much work cognitively to deal with.”

Tim Baumgartner, director of the Wellbeing and Counseling Center at Rice, said that a reason why Zoom fatigue has led to so much burnout is that we are having to adjust to new ways of interacting that we never had to deal with before. He says it doesn’t feel normal for us as humans to communicate in this way. 

“I’m looking at me now too, not just you … It’s like walking around looking at a mirror while you’re interacting with other people and that’s not normal. We’re paying attention a little more to things that we wouldn’t normally need to pay attention to,” Baumgartner said. “I’ve always believed that any kind of electronic communication between human beings is just really flat. We’re seeing and hearing each other, but we’ve got five senses, and this is not enough.” 

So what can we do? What kind of attitudes and habits can reduce the effects of Zoom fatigue? Fagundes mentioned using standing desks, minimizing screen time as much as possible, using breaks between meetings to completely unplug, taking walks —even if they’re just around the house — really, anything to give your mind a break from technology. For your eyes, he suggests looking away from the screen for about 30 seconds every 10-12 minutes so that you’re not just continuously staring at that one device. He also recommends looking into changing modes on your devices a couple of hours before you sleep to minimize the blue light emitted and the detrimental effects it can have on your health. 

Richardson emphasized the need to take breaks. 

“To avoid Zoom fatigue, you should be aware of when you need to take a break and give yourself time to take those breaks,” Richardson said. “Try to spend some time outside every day if the weather permits and be sure to maintain a schedule that allows you to eat, take care of yourself and get your work done.”

She also recommends that Rice students suffering from Zoom fatigue take advantage of wellbeing and counseling resources at the Student Wellbeing Office, the Counseling Center, and the Gibbs Wellness and Recreation Center.

Through this unusual era, Baumgartner said it’s important to be patient with ourselves and others. We are all going through a very challenging and unprecedented time, he said, and dealing with Zoom difficulties on a daily basis and adjusting to this new “normal” affects us all differently and significantly.

“We need to keep in mind that we are all still experiencing varying degrees of trauma. And while it now is familiar, it doesn’t mean that it’s normal. We need to keep in mind the level of stress that we’re under; we need to be taking care of ourselves; we need to be taking care of each other,” Baumgartner said.. 

He said, if possible, it might help to find a few bright sides to all these experiences and difficulties. 

“You were thrown into a situation of total unknown, for everyone, so there was no one to guide you … and you guys have adapted,” he said. “You’re learning things about yourself that you won’t even realize you’ve learned until later on. So while there’s trauma, while there’s a lot of loss around it, while [being completely virtual] is draining and exhausting, what you’re learning by getting through it and adjusting and making the changes that you need to make are going to be really burned in lessons that you’ll use for the rest of your life.”

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