Zoomed Out

Michael Metzger

According to Gallup, Americans are experiencing the sharpest drop in perceived well-being on record. Is some of this due to zoom fatigue?

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we’ve been on video calls more than ever before. Many are finding it exhausting. A while back, the BBC asked two experts on workplace wellbeing – Gianpiero Petriglieri and Marissa Shuffler – to explain why video calls are so fatiguing.

Petriglieri is an associate professor at Insead. Shuffleris an associate professor at Clemson University. Both study workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness. They say video calls are like alcohol. When consumed in moderation, fine. Consumed all day? Not so good.

Why? How is being on a video call different than face-to-face communication? It’s the difference between communication that’s embodied (in-person) or disembodied (pixels). Petriglieri says our bodies know the difference. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not.”

On video calls, our brain focuses more on non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language. This kind of active focused attention is the domain of the left hemisphere. It consumes a lot of energy. We can quickly become exhausted.

In-person communication is more relaxed, passive. When we’re in someone’s presence, we non-consciously take in more of the communication environment – feel, smell, taste, touch. This kind of receptivity is the domain of the right hemisphere.[1] It’s not as exhausting.

Video chats also have a lot of awkward silence. This can make people feel uncomfortable, which can be fatiguing. “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about the technology.” Anxiety is tiring.

Or worse. Researchers have looked at the silence factor and found that delays on phone or conferencing systems shaped our views of people negatively. Even a delay of 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused. That happens a lot on zoom.

Then there’s the face factor. Shuffler says that, on camera, we are very aware of being watched. “You are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform.” It’s stressful, which is fatiguing. “it’s very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on screen, or not to be conscious of how they behave in front of the camera.”

And there’s the don’t-put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket factor. Petriglieri says anxiety rises when we’re confined to a computer window. “Imagine you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone, isn’t that weird?” Um, yes.

So what can be done about feel zoomed out? Go barefoot. There’s research on the benefits of walking barefoot outside to improve well-being. C. S. Lewis practiced the spiritual discipline of walking barefoot on the lawn at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning did as well. Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees takes off his shoes. Walking barefoot outside puts you in touch with creation. It’s embodied communication with God. Try it if you’re feeling zoomed out.

[1] c.f. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010)

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