Are video calls for work and socializing leaving you tired and irritable? You’re not alone, but there are ways to get better at it
With the easing of the lockdown in several cities, people are starting to trickle back into offices, but in much smaller numbers, which means one aspect of our lives that has become a standard fixture of most workdays will continue to dominate our schedules: video calls. If you are experiencing what has become an accepted term across the world (so much so that psychologists are studying it seriously)—“Zoom fatigue"—you are not alone, nor is it likely to go away anytime soon.
And it’s not just work; it’s catching up with family across the globe over a quick WhatsApp call after work, while weekends mean multiple group calls with friends from school, college, a former workplace—because really, what else are you doing? While socializing can be refreshing and we do need that human connect more than ever in these times when most of us have been holed up at home for over 40 days, it’s not quite the same as catching up with friends over beer, when you feel more, not less, energized as the evening goes on. Most extroverts and even introverts (in smaller servings) “feed off" the energy of other people but this doesn’t seem to be happening during video calls. What’s going on?
“Part of the craziness now is that our homes are now our workplaces and our screens are our sole connection to folks beyond our household. This can make us feel like ‘living headshots’ since all we can do now to project our identity is a thumbnail image of our faces," writes Suzanne Degges-White in Psychology Today.
Experts concur that one reason Zoom fatigue sets in for most people who are engaged in multiple video calls through the day is simply the amount of attention one has to pay to stay tuned. “When it comes to work, most people have to spend a lot of time on their screens through the day in any case. Then they have multiple calls during which they are looking into a screen, and finally, their entertainment is also screen-based. The first reason for stress and fatigue is simply screen fatigue. It leads to eye strain and can make people exhausted, crankier, more irritable," says Mahesh Natarajan, a counsellor with InnerSight, a mental health organization in Bengaluru.
Then comes the paying attention part. As much as we like to think technology can replace real-world interactions, it does take more effort to connect with people through a screen. “You have to focus on people’s faces, which appear as tiny boxes on your screen, to get cues that we would normally get through expressions, body language and posture. Video calls give you a very limited view," says Natarajan, who has been doing online counselling through this period and is hearing the term “Zoom fatigue" more and more frequently from clients—and experiencing some of it as well. “Yes, even as a therapist used to counselling people over the phone or video calls, it does get tiring. I have to do much more to hold the client’s focus, to understand their situation and mood," says Natarajan.
Add to this the fact that most of us are facing bandwidth issues since the tech is not perfect and we begin to understand why we have to pay a lot more attention to understand what’s going on and respond appropriately and at the appropriate time. Psychologists call this “continuous partial attention" (it is not the same as multitasking, which is more voluntary) and there has been research to show that it may lead to “increased stress and decreased ability to focus and concentrate on the present moment, prohibiting reflection, contemplation, and thoughtful decision making", according to Psychology Today.
“There is almost a feeling of being on edge because you don’t want to miss an opportunity to speak up and you don’t want to forget what you have to say.... Of course, these are facets of real-world meetings as well but there you are in a focused work environment and that certainly helps keep you less distracted," says consultant clinical psychologist Shubha Madhusudhan, who feels we are going through a period of workplace transformation and will see more and more such issues related to mental and physical health as we adjust to new realities.
There are ways to deal with it, and they begin with the body rather than the mind, says Ruchika Gupta, head of physiotherapy at Portea Medical, a home health services provider. “Firstly, when video meetings are being scheduled, breaks have to be built in. If you are doing a 30- to 45-minute meeting it’s fine but anything that goes over 45 minutes has to have a break. This is not just to let people stretch their bodies and relax for a few minutes but it is also essential to get focus and attention back. You will have a better discussion," says Gupta.
Second, she says, don’t sit on a bed or sofa while taking calls; and as far as possible, use a desk. If you are using a dining table, keep in mind that dining table chairs are not well-cushioned, which can lead to pain in the back and buttocks, ultimately distracting you from the screen, so place extra cushions as needed. She also stresses the need to switch off video and audio from time to time and do breathing exercises. “Contract, hold and release your belly button for 5 minutes at a stretch—this is something you can do even when your video is on and it will help activate your core," says Gupta.
Natarajan suggests switching between video and screen-sharing/whiteboard and other features built into most video- conferencing platforms. “We are much more used to seeing text and images on screen than people, so reducing the amount of time you spend looking at tiny thumbnails of faces and spending more time using, say, the virtual whiteboard to record ideas is a good way to break fatigue," he suggests.
He also advises people with heavy video-calling schedules to sit near a window so they can occasionally look at something else other than a blank wall. “Focus on something else in the room for a while during a call—a house plant, a painting on the wall. This will give your eyes a break," he adds.