What's the real story behind Zoom fatigue?
A view from Sue Unerman

What's the real story behind Zoom fatigue?

There is a clue to why video calls leave any of feeling tired in the different responses of men and women.

Are you exhausted by video calls?

You’re not alone. Many colleagues and friends have complained of this. And speculated on why they are exhausted.

Some say they miss the energy they normally get from being with team members. If you are an introvert then Susan Cain’s theory in Quiet might mean that this would not apply as she says that only extraverts are said to get endorphins from being in a room with other people, whereas introverts find this tiring. Clearly some people are really suffering from losing the physical presence of others, and it just isn’t compensated for by the camera. 

Others point to the extra mental processing that comes from not being able to read other people’s body language as instinctively as they can when they are in the same room in real life. If this is true, then it may be a useful lesson in empathy with those who exhibit neurodiversity of this kind. Social-emotional agnosia is a clinical term for this kind of emotional blindness. It is the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and vocal inflection. This disorder makes it very hard to accurately understand another person's emotions in social situations.

If this is what we are all losing on Zoom we can now understand, and empathise about, how hard this neurodiverse condition might be.  Logically though I am not sure that the screen makes that much difference though as we are not exhausted from watching TV or a movie. When we watch a drama on a screen we don’t complain about having to work harder to compensate for the screen coming between us and the actor’s body language. 

There is now evidence that points to another cause of this exhaustion, and it is gendered. A paper published earlier this month by researchers at Stanford University examines "Zoom fatigue". Researchers found that women reported a "significantly higher" level of Zoom fatigue than men. Among the more than 10,000 study participants, about 14% of women self-reported feeling either very or extremely fatigued after video meetings compared to roughly 5.5% of men.

Stanford Professor Jeff Hancock explained on Radio 4 last week that the reason for this fatigue was likely to be what he called “mirror anxiety”. People are anxiously examining their own little image in the corner of the screen. He pointed out that mirrors are relatively new to us in terms of evolution. Good mirrors have only been available to the mass populace for a few hundred years, which is nothing in terms of our emotional development as humans. Furthermore it has been well documented that women are culturally conditioned to be conscious of their looks. 

Mirror anxiety on Zoom is a new problem then.  We haven’t spent our careers looking in the mirror when we are in meetings of course.  And when we do look in the mirror normally it is when we are getting ready to go out and face the world of work. We have our “game faces” on. This is totally different from catching constant glimpses of what we actually look like when we are listening hard, or concentrating on what is being said. And most of us don’t like it.

Prof Jeff suggests turning the camera off (some apps allow). I have another suggestion. Years ago I heard the glorious Joanna Lumley talking about a time as a teenager when she was getting ready to go out and her mother told her: “Don’t worry so much, nobody is going to look at YOU.” Now clearly Lumley is a beautiful woman, and does draw attention. But the truth is that when you are on that Zoom call you should remember Ma Lumley’s wise words.

Because nobody is going to look at you, don’t worry about it. They are all too busy looking at themselves. Think instead about what you can say or do to make them feel good and that they belong.  Remember the microaffirmations that we talk about in our book Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou: People don’t remember what you say. They don’t remember how you looked in a particular meeting. They remember how you make them feel. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

Photo: AndreyPopov/Getty Images

Topics