26 Feb 2021
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Hitting mute on Zoom fatigue

Over 300 million people globally are now using Zoom every day. While virtual meetings have become a part of our professional and personal lives, many people find videoconferencing exhausting and are suffering from so-called Zoom fatigue, the feeling of dread and exhaustion when another online meeting pops up in the calendar. 


Pam Bailie, who works with Pam Golding Properties, and has been doing so remotely since the first lockdown was imposed in March last year, says it feels as if the online platform has turned everyone into “Zoom zombies” as they talk over each other, or lapse into periods of silence waiting for someone to speak. “Zoom makes me feel exhausted and disconnected. It is also weird being able to watch myself speaking; a bit like having a meeting in a mirrored boardroom.”

The novelty of meeting on Zoom has worn off, says Tasso Evangelinos, CEO of the Central City Improvement District. “I find that after I have been on Zoom for an hour or more, especially when the meetings are with overseas colleagues late at night or involve a lot of participants, it is very tiring. I then need time to recover, which is time-consuming and stressful, especially if I have a whole day ahead of me.”


Their frustrations are not unique. Melanie Stein, an organisational psychologist based in the CCID footprint in the Cape Town CBD, says Zoom fatigue has been described as “the tiredness, worry or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms for communication”. Given how widespread the use of Zoom is, this means that “we now have a staggering number of individuals at the height of their productivity game, who are now potentially suffering from any number of the following symptoms: excessive exhaustion, eye strain, concentration and attention difficulties, mental fatigue and depressive thoughts, demotivation, poor interpersonal interactions, and lowered physical exertion that can lead to a dependence on stimulants such as sugar and coffee”.


Much of the fatigue and anxiety associated with Zoom fatigue stems from changes in the way we work, explains Stein. As these Zoom meetings take place remotely, where there are other demands, attention is fragmented and the brain is forced to have many ‘folders’ open at once (work commitments, home commitments, childcare). This is underscored by general worry and anxiety. “It is a melting pot of psychological and physiological factors which, if not acknowledged and managed effectively, can lead to mental suffering at a level that severely impacts one's functioning,” says Stein.


Many have complained about a dip in productivity after months of meeting online.  “Online meetings can be detrimental to creativity in the long-term, as it is not as easy to share ideas and innovate without face-to-face contact,” Evangelinos believes. “It also leads to a lack of connection between staff members, as there is no office banter, socialising or sharing of experiences, especially in this very stressful time we are living in. For this reason, at the CCID we have real meetings every week in the office and we find they are far more effective than Zoom meetings. At the CCID, as we provide an essential service in the Cape Town Central City, we continued to work at the office from Day 1 of the hard lockdown, and we have therefore been able to counteract the negative effects of Zoom interaction with real interaction.”


The starkness of online interaction, coupled with nonverbal overload, is one of the reasons people find videoconferencing mentally and physically exhausting, according to a recent article in the Wall Street JournalThis is because behaviour ordinarily used for close relationships, such as long stretches of direct “eye gaze” and faces seen close up, has suddenly become the way we interact with colleagues, casual acquaintances and even strangers.

Industrial psychologist Deborah Atkins, of Deborah Atkins & Associates, which based in the CBD, suggests creating an opportunity during a virtual meeting where attendees can say how they are feeling. “It’s important to be able to express or verbalise how you feel or where you stand, as this will often not be observed through online communication.” However, she adds that there is a lot of power in physical presence, which online platforms simply cannot imitate.

Matt Brownell, head of brand marketing for Yoco, based in Shortmarket Street, says the company is cognisant of the detrimental impact of endless virtual meetings. Yoco has therefore instituted “no meetings” Wednesday where staff members are able to work uninterrupted by virtual meetings. The duration of online engagement is also limited. These small changes have resulted in “fundamentally different energy levels”, says Brownell.

And Stein points out that there are aspects of the work environment that Zoom cannot replicate. “The physical office environment allows for more effective face-to-face communication, which allows people to read body language and social cues which may be misread on a screen.”

Going forward, and with the roll out of vaccinations imminent, we are likely to see a hybrid way of working, with people splitting their time between working from home, and coming into a shared office environment. Evangelinos concludes: “With the easing of restrictions, we are already seeing see more people returning to the CBD and the office, and we look forward to welcoming back more people in the near future.”

IMAGES: Google