How to overcome screen fatigue

Zoom, Teams and Hangouts, oh my!

Jill Winter | Footnote

Editor's note: Updated November 1, 2020

In the past seven months or so, many of our lives have, in a sense, become a virtual existence. With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting us in March in earnest, many of our offices transitioned operationally to a work-from-home setting.

Now, we are faced with a behemoth of challenges as we face this “new normal.” Yes, we’re talking screen fatigue, perhaps better known as Zoom fatigue, as that particular company’s software has dominated the virtual channels in 2020.

Examining the fatigue

While there isn’t a formal definition yet, Zoom fatigue is the mental exhaustion that is caused by being on video meetings all day. It is not, of course, just associated with the Zoom platform — it’s with all video chatting platforms (Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, etc.). Zoom and other video meeting software are great because it is a way to have some connection with others while we are safe at home, working. But many of us feel tired, anxious or overwhelmed after being on video calls.

First, when we are on a Zoom call, our brains are working much harder than it would have to in an in-person meeting. We are processing more visual cues from everyone on the screen that we wouldn’t normally register. When there are multiple people on the call, we are looking at everyone’s background and scanning everyone’s video feed. Our brains are working harder to pay attention to pick up on nonverbal cues like facial expressions, tone, pitch and body language.

While we are on the video platforms, we must work harder to make it look like we are paying attention. If we are looking elsewhere besides facing the camera, it looks like we aren’t paying attention to the speaker. If we were in a board room, we can look around without fear of judgment.

Secondly, it’s emotionally taxing. Most of us are overly critical of ourselves and how we look on screen. Being on screen makes a person feel like they are on stage; we have to be “on” all the time. These platforms are often being used not only for meetings, but are used to also simulate causal, natural “water cooler” or “coffee break” conversations to maintain firm culture and personal connections. And don’t think this drastic shift is going much better for the extroverts among us; research is showing they, too, are struggling with all the similar nuances of being “on” all the time and taking in the same amount of information during each call.

We are using these video platforms not only professionally, but personally, too. After a long day of video meetings at work, we may hop on another video chat with friends and families, or help our kids with meetings with their teachers or classrooms. Likely technology problems at some point in the day add another layer of strain to our overloaded minds.

Considerations to limit fatigue, stress

Zoom is here to stay, as are its counterparts. However our future may look, virtual meetings will be a part of it in some fashion. Zoom fatigue is so new, there currently isn’t a lot of scientific research that exists with proven coping mechanisms. However, researchers and psychologists know enough about the brain and body to help describe it and tips to help overcome it. Consider these options to help relieve some of the symptoms you may be experiencing:
  • Come prepared. Prepare for video meetings as you would an in-person meeting. If you are leading the meeting, have an agenda and follow it. When hosting a video call — greet everyone. This is, by extension, replacing the handshake and is welcoming everyone to the meeting. This can also start necessary chitchat that normally happens in meetings. Make sure to send out a follow-up recap email after the meeting.
  • Don’t multitask. Our brains can only monotask. When our brains are already overloaded, trying to multitask is incredibly difficult and exhausting. Plus, it’s distracting to the call.
  • Understand the technology. These platforms have incredible features and capabilities — learn to use them all. One option is to change your settings to speaker view so you are only looking at whoever is speaking. This allows your brain to focus on one person instead of scanning the entire screen. You are often instructed to have gallery view so you can see more of your peers but, as we know, this can lead to sensory overload and can be counterproductive. Find what works best for you — and it may depend on the meeting and how many people are involved.
  • Take breaks. If you can’t take a physical break from the computer screen between video calls, give your eyes a break. Look at something in the distance for at least 20 seconds to allow your eyes to focus on something at a different distance. Another option is to shorten meetings. Instead of scheduling a 30- or 60-minute meeting, schedule 25 and 50 minutes. This gives all attendees and their eyes a chance to reset.
  • Check your surroundings. Lighting is key to video calls. Well-lit videos are less straining on the eyes. Face a window or have a light facing you so everyone can see your face. Make sure your face is framed in the screen proportionately and appropriately. The camera should be at eye level. Looking at the camera simulates real eye contact for the attendees. (But, admittedly, uncomfortable for the speaker). Don’t forget to check your background. Make sure you are the primary focus instead of what’s on the wall behind you. Or use a professional looking virtual background.
  • Minimize disruptions. Disruptions happen when we work from home. We are now sharing our work office with partners, kids and pets. Try to minimize these disruptions the best you can. It’s best to stay on mute unless you are actively participating in the conversation. Remember to give yourself and others grace when interruptions happen.
  • Give yourself the best look. Dress for your day. If you are going to have Zoom meetings, dress for the importance of them. If you are asked to participate in an unexpected video call, have a “Zoom shirt” or “Zoom jacket” handy to put on. Despite the casual environment of our homes, you are still working in a professional setting. Preparing for your day, as you would in the office, tends to make us more prepared and productive. And, through this all, maintaining routine is helpful to our emotional well-beings.
  • Take a video break. Zooming and video conferencing have been a lifeline to a lot of us when we are feeling isolated. However, this isn’t our only technology available to us. We still have our phones and email as effective communication tools we can use. Getting up and walking around on a phone call can be just the break your eyes and brain need.

Keep looking for what works for you

Practice make progress. No one expects everyone to be perfect at video meetings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be on our way to being great. We get a little better each time we do something. This technology is here to stay, and I hope these tips will help your minds from being overloaded.

Jill Winter is the director of marketing at Froehling Anderson. She has 16 years of marketing experience in professional services industries and is a past president of the Association of Accounting Marketing — MN Chapter. You may reach her at jwinter@fa-cpa.com or 952-979-3100.