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Zoom fatigue: ever wondered why video calls are so exhausting? This new study could have the answers

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Lauren Geall
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Are you finding the world of virtual socialising incredibly… exhausting? Here’s why video calling is making you feel wiped out.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Zoom calls are bloody exhausting

Whether you’re having virtual drinks with a group of friends, a catch-up with your work buddy or a meeting with your team, there’s something about video calling that takes the life out of you.

This isn’t a new observation, of course. The term ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been used since the beginning of the pandemic to refer to the tiredness that comes with endless video calls. But now, for the first time, scientists have pinpointed exactly what it is about Zoom that leaves us feeling so exhausted – and it makes a lot of sense. 

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According to a new study, led by Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University, there are four reasons why video calls sap our energy: the excessive amount of intense, prolonged eye-contact; “increased self-evaluation” from seeing ourselves on screen; the lack of mobility; and the increased “cognitive load” required to interpret virtual gestures and other nonverbal clues.

This makes a lot of sense – especially when it comes to the fact that we’re ‘self-evaluating’ more than ever. I can’t be the only one who finds themselves staring at their face on Zoom calls – the impulse to monitor and control my behaviour is almost addictive. 

According to Charlotte Armitage, a media and business psychologist, being able to see ourselves is exhausting not only because of the increased self-evaluation it causes, but also because the very existence of our reflection on-screen provides an added level of focus we wouldn’t have in real life. 

“The additional psychological processing involved in attending to one’s own behaviour and actions, as mirrored by the online platform, can be draining for a whole number of reasons,” she explains. “At the very least, it adds an additional level of stimuli that you wouldn’t have had in a face-to-face meeting.

A woman on video call
Finding video calls incredibly tiring? It's probably because you're staring at yourself...

She continues: “When our behaviour is mirrored, whether that be by another person or through seeing ourselves online, it draws our attention to certain traits or mannerisms that we might not have been previously aware of. Watching yourself on Zoom, when you aren’t used to it, is similar to looking at a new person, but because you’re seeing parts of your own behaviour which you hadn’t ever noticed before, it can be confusing.

“It is quite an unusual concept for you to see how you appear to others during normal everyday conversation.”

Armitage also notes that our attention spans are smaller when we’re using technology, meaning it feels particularly tiring to stay attentive for the duration of a meeting or chat with friends.  

However, although it’s safe to say that Zoom fatigue is a very real problem many of us are facing right now, it’s also true that we have the tools at our disposal to limit the impact our video calling habits are having on our energy levels.

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Indeed, now we have some kind of idea about what it is that makes Zoom calls so exhausting, we can take action to counteract these things – for example, the study suggests doing things such as making the chat window smaller, sitting further away from the screen and hiding the self-view option. You could also limit the amount of time you spend on video calls to break things up, as Stylist’s Megan Murray has been doing.

With Zoom and other video calling platforms set to dominate our lives for some time to come, it’s worthwhile taking a think about how this technology is impacting your energy levels and mental health, and taking steps to remedy some of this impact. 

Staying in contact with your friends and family (even if only virtually) is just as important than ever – you just have to make sure you’re taking steps to look after yourself, too. 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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