A relatively new phenomenon has occurred in the workplace since COVID-19 caused many jobs to become work-from-home jobs and turned most meetings into virtual meetings. This new phenomenon is known as “Zoom Fatigue” or “Zoom Burnout.”
Managers, workers and academics have noticed that by the time afternoon Zoom meetings get underway, workers who have engaged in Zoom (or other video calling software) for much of the day become similar to Zombies — unengaged, unmotivated, uninvolved and lacking energy.
We call these workers “Zoombies.” Research has shown that Zoombies in the workplace are a real phenomenon, with frequent video callers often experiencing general, social, emotional, visual and motivational fatigue.
Zoom fatigue occurs for numerous reasons, including anxiety from being stared at, lack of mobility, increased mental effort, technological distractions, constant viewing of self, constant close eye gaze and ease of distractions. So, what can we do about it? We offer 10 tips to help combat Zoom fatigue; six of them focused on managers and video call hosts, and the other four focused on participants.
1. Create Zoom-free days or times.
Some organizations have found that creating a day where video calls are discouraged provides a much-needed break from Zoom fatigue. Zoom-free Fridays is probably the most common of these. Another option is to create norms where video calls are discouraged during certain times, such as after 3 p.m., to help combat Zoombie conversions. Because Zoom fatigue appears to be more likely to occur toward the end of the workday, limiting late Zoom calls can go far in reducing fatigue.
2. Establish non-video norms.
Many of the causes of Zoom fatigue are related to the act of having to stare at others and having others staring at you for the entire meeting. This increased amount of eye contact, whether one is speaking or listening, creates a continuous state of hyper-arousal and drains mental energy. So, establishing norms that allow participants to limit their time on camera can go a long way in reducing fatigue. For example, allow participants to turn off their cameras 10 minutes into the meeting (after early pleasantries have been exchanged).
3. Make participation in social Zoom meetings optional.
Although social Zoom meetings may help regain some of the lost social interactions due to a work-from-home environment, they can add to the fatigue from a day already filled with Zoom meetings.
4. Build in breaks between meetings.
Breaks allow employees to “reset” and to start the next meeting in a more relaxed state. Not only can this increase their level of focus and engagement during meetings, but it is also likely to reduce the cumulative level of stress they feel at the end of the day. Thus, hosts should be vigilant to avoid scheduling meetings that fall directly after a previous meeting.
5. Create shorter meetings.
We know that meetings frequently fill up the time allotted to them, and thus scheduling longer meetings almost always results in having longer meetings. Managers should experiment with scheduling meetings for 45 or 40 minutes instead of the usual 60, or for 20 minutes instead of the usual 30. You are likely to find that when everyone knows the schedule, the goals of the meeting are likely to be met within the given timeframe. Scheduling shorter meetings (by not scheduling for a complete hour) also helps build in breaks between Zoom meetings, as described above.
6. Use other communication methods.
For many organizations, Zoom has become the default communication channel to replace traditional face to face meetings. However, for all the reasons mentioned earlier, video calls are not necessarily the most effective communications medium. Thus, be mindful when scheduling Zoom meetings and ask yourself, could I do this in an email? Would a phone call be better here? Emails and phone calls don’t create Zoombies, so unless you are truly gaining something by going with a video call, use other less fatigue-inducing communication channels.
As a manager, you can also provide tips to help your team members reduce Zoom fatigue as participants:
7. Take breaks.
Taking little breaks can help reduce Zoom fatigue. These could include occasionally looking at things other than the screen, getting up and stretching, taking a restroom break, minimizing your Zoom window, doing a little exercise or getting a drink. Having your camera off during these breaks is also likely to reduce stress.
8. Hiding self-view.
Some of the stress caused by zooming is because you constantly see yourself, which causes a heightened self-focus and “mirror anxiety.” Turning off the camera or minimizing the Zoom screen will eliminate this stressor as will hiding your self-view (most video calling programs allow a way to hide yourself, while still allowing others to see you). In Zoom, right-click your picture then click on “Hide Self View”.
9. Don’t multi-task.
Zooming can increase your cognitive load, or mental effort, which can lead to fatigue. This is particularly true if the meeting involves checking the chat functions and sending reactions. The problem is heightened when participants try to do other tasks while zooming. Multi-tasking tends to reduce task performance as well as increase fatigue. Thus, it is best to keep Zoom meetings short and focused, maximizing the positive returns of your participation and holding off on accomplishing other things until the meeting is over.
10. Get good equipment.
Stress from Zooming is increased when technological issues interfere with the effectiveness of meetings. Bad internet connections, overloaded computers, old fuzzy cameras and poor microphones that cause a slight time delay are all factors that could reduce the effectiveness of Zoom participation, while increasing the stress of the meeting. Some people find that headsets help keep outside noise to a minimum and improve voice clarity. So, make sure your equipment is up to date to eliminate any unnecessary stressors.
Although, video calls have helped organizations make it through the COVID shutdowns and have opened up a new reality of being able to work from home for many employees, there are downsides. We believe that employers and employees who experiment with these 10 tips will find that some work for them in reducing these downsides and the Zoombification of the workplace.
About the Authors
Steve Werner, Ph.D., is a professor of international business and chair of the department of management and leadership at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business.
Marina Sebastijanovic is a faculty member in the department of management and leadership, and serves as the faculty director of the professional M.B.A. program at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business.