Priti Shah: Feeling fatigued from Zoom? Give your brain a break

May 21, 2020
Written By:
Jared Wadley

Tired woman at computer. Image credit: Pixabay

ANN ARBOR—Many people have stayed connected with co-workers, family and friends by using Zoom video conferencing as part of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

The frequent, sometimes long, virtual meetings—especially for work—may have taxed the brain to the point of “Zoom fatigue.”

Priti Shah

Priti Shah

Priti Shah is a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. She studies cognitive tasks that require managing multiple goals, integrating different sources of information and forming coherent, memorable representations.

What causes “Zoom” fatigue?

Zoom meetings are more demanding cognitively than face-to-face meetings, which rely a lot on visual cues. It is easy to tell if people are paying attention, whether someone wants to speak, whether they are agreeing or disagreeing, and so forth. In a Zoom meeting, it is much more challenging to read people: Are they following along, bored, engaged, in agreement? There is no eye contact or shared eye gaze to provide these cues. Even if people are explicitly nodding or raising hands, it takes extra effort to scan through all the people. Some people have their cameras turned off, and sometimes there are more people than an array can fit, making things even more challenging. There is often a temporal delay. All of these factors make it necessary to consciously think about things that normally would be fairly automatic.

Another factor that people tend to be aware of is that there are many distractions that are not always present in face-to-face meetings—self-consciousness about one’s appearance or room, disruptive pets and children. It’s also tempting to respond to emails or work on the laptop; if you’re muted, no one will notice. Sustaining attention is harder when trying to avoid distractions.

There are also other fatiguing characteristics of video conferencing that are less discussed in the media. In face-to-face meetings, there is usually some gap between a previous meeting and the next one, providing a natural cognitive and perhaps physical break. People cannot focus on difficult cognitive tasks for extended periods of time, and research suggests that they will be more alert and have greater capacity to think after a 15-minute break (especially one that involves physical activity or the outdoors). Zoom meetings that occur back to back are too taxing for your attentional system.

Finally, uncertainty and stress can lead to distracting thoughts and poor sleep quality. Both of these factors, in turn, make sustained attention taxing.

What other challenges can Zoom meetings present?

In addition to the challenges above, unreliable technology for video conferencing can be a pain. Some people randomly lose internet connection, and part of every meeting seems to be devoted to waiting for someone to come back into the call or to repeat what has been discussed while the person was away. People also must wait for everyone to access documents or to figure out how to share screens. All of these activities disrupt the flow of the meetings.

Silence is worrisome. Is everyone muted? Did the internet connection fail? Is everyone simply stumped or not wanting to speak? Then, there’s seeing yourself on the screen: “my hair is a mess,” “people can see the dishes in my sink” or “I look like I’m floating in a field of flowers.” Totally distracting.

As a researcher who connects with colleagues, students and others, how have you managed your Zoom use?

The best Zoom meetings I’ve participated in require preparation: send everyone an agenda and relevant documents. Ask them to review this information before the meeting. A shared screen or a shared document can be really helpful for keeping everyone on the same page.

If you haven’t met in a while, schedule a few minutes for “chatting” prior to the meeting start to help everyone get into the meeting mindset and, if necessary, open relevant documents and view the agenda. Sometimes, seeing someone in a group meeting reminds me that I’d like to talk to that individual. Schedule a separate time—don’t waste the large group’s time with a side conversation.

Finally, remember the maxim, “If it can be an email, don’t schedule a meeting.” New online tools, such as Slack, can also support collaboration.

In the upcoming months, some people will return to the office. What lessons, if any, will have been learned from using Zoom?

Some meeting habits that make videoconferencing efficient can readily be applied to face-to-face, and people might be more likely to adopt practices that they were not following before. They will also have a renewed appreciation for seeing one another in person, and have those inefficient side chats and their favorite colleague’s banana nut bread.

What tips do you recommend to help homebound workers find balance between Zoom and life?

  • Take breaks between Zoom meetings, preferably away from technology.
  • Create separation for work and nonwork. For example, sit in a different room (or face a different direction) for your work video conferences. Wear different clothes, perhaps. Or, take a short walk or meditate. Rapid task-switching is taxing, and it’s difficult to stop thinking about one topic and move on to the next one without a break.
  • Make yourself comfortable—footrest, ergonomic keyboard, whatever you need. Your home work space is likely less ergonomic than the one at the office.
  • Schedule fewer shorter and more efficient meetings—rather than long and open-ended meetings—to maximize people’s attention.
  • Forgive yourself, and others, for those bad Zoom days.