“Often on many Fridays I've cried after long calls, feeling so done with it all,” says Arya Tiwari (25), a Mumbai-based marketing professional who finds it difficult to finish her work with the expectation to be on 5 to 10 Zoom calls every day.
A recent study shows Tiwari is far from alone. A paper published in February by researchers at Stanford University is among the first to explore the phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’, the catchall phrase used to describe the exhaustion people across the globe are unsurprisingly experiencing after a day of back-to-back video conferences.
“Let’s get on Zoom,” has become a common phrase in most workplaces with most of them forced to go remote last year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While in many other countries things are starting to return to some semblance of normalcy, India is just seeing the tip of the iceberg with its second wave, as a result of which millions like Tiwari continue to work from home.
“After each Zoom call, it's a rainbow of emotions; the most dominant ones being angst and helplessness,” Tiwari says. There is a sense of overwhelming burnout that Tiwari feels with Zoom meetings often running over two or three hours. “There are also times where I've felt lost because a lot was discussed but not much was said, just a lot of jargon and faff that ultimately pushes just a few people from the team to clock in extra hours,” she remarks.
Video chats reduce mobility and increase cognitive load. During regular in-person interactions, each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously unlike videos where a lot of effort goes in sending and receiving signals.
While an increase in fatigue levels related to video conferencing is noted, another recent study by Stanford has also shown why women experience higher levels of it compared to men.
The researchers revealed it was an increase in ‘self-focused attention’ triggered by viewing themselves while video conferencing. “Self-focused attention refers to a heightened awareness of how one comes across or how one appears in a conversation,” said Jeffrey Hancock, professor of communication in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and co-author of the study, according to a report.
To better understand this effect, the researchers asked participants questions including, “During a video conference, how concerned do you feel about seeing yourself?” and “During a video conference, how distracting is it to see yourself?”
The study showed that women answered these questions at higher rates than men. This finding coincides with existing research that shows women have a greater inclination to self-focus than men when they are in the presence of a mirror. That prolonged self-focus can produce negative emotions, or what the researchers call “mirror anxiety,” Hancock further explained.
Previous studies have also shown that when you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself and now that negative feeling is amplified multifold when you spend numerous hours looking at yourself during video calls.
The solution? Change the default display settings and turn off self-view, recommend the researchers.
Part of a larger problem
Zoom fatigue is just one of the several ways in which remote work and the pandemic has taken its toll differently on women compared to men. While ‘work from home burnout’ has been noted across the workforce, remote work has upended many women’s lives. With the blurring of work-life boundaries, many employees are now being expected to work longer hours with no hard stop for their day.
For women who normally also shoulder the larger portion of household chores, this has led to a struggle to balance both responsibilities. With many children still in online classes, the bulk of childcare duties are also being shouldered by the women of the house.
There is a dire need for workplaces to relook at how their employees are navigating the challenges of remote work and create a plan to allow everyone to take time off to better balance the needs of their personal lives. Companies like Citigroup have mandated “Zoom-free Fridays” to account for the fatigue that employees are experiencing and have strongly said that they do not encourage scheduling calls outside business hours. Small steps like these can help people lead a healthier work-life balance and set teams up for more productivity.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)