As we enter week another week of the seemingly endless COVID-19 news cycle, people around the world continue to work from home and practice social distancing to flatten the curve. Over the past few weeks, our kitchens have morphed into classrooms, our living rooms have transformed into offices, and our backyards (if we’re lucky enough to have them) have become oases of escape.
We now find ourselves viewing our coworkers, classmates and family members through the window of our computer screen. All day, we hop from meeting to classroom to another meeting, then finish up the school day and log back on for a virtual happy hour, and end the day with a FaceTime chat with our parents before bed. (You can’t dodge those calls. Your parents know you’re home because, well…where else are you going to be?)
Doing this almost every day for weeks on end has left us feeling exhausted. But why, exactly?
Quick answer: Zoom, Google Hangouts and FaceTime (Sorry Skype, you didn’t make the cut this pandemic). All of these virtual meeting spaces have mentally worn us out to the point where we don’t have the energy at the end of the day to even look at another screen.
We can’t run on fumes until the end of social distancing because we don’t even know when that is. So how do we combat this new fatigue? Let’s first understand what we are now experiencing in our virtual lives.
Virtual conversations are inherently going to be more face-to-face (literally), eliminating the cues from non-verbal body language we’re accustomed to. According to Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the majority of human interaction is interpreted through non-verbal communication. A shrug, hand movement, fidgets—these are all non-verbal cues that help us interpret the tone and mood behind someone’s words. So when the computer eliminates this, we are forced to focus all our energy on the words someone is saying and interpret them from a cropped point of view. Because our minds have to spend more time and energy trying to understand this, the natural flow and rhythm of conversation is disrupted. It’s as if you’re snapping off beat to a song you’ve heard a million times and can’t seem to get back in sync.
Another cause of our fatigue is the “gallery view” feature in some programs that allows you to see everyone on the call at once. Sometimes it’s nice to see that you’re not the only one that doesn’t have yourself together by the 9 a.m. status call. But when you’re on gallery view for an hour or so for every meeting, it can be mentally taxing without you even knowing it. Imagine walking into Best Buy and being stuck in the TV aisle where every television is playing a different movie. That’s effectively what gallery view is. You’re constantly pursuing the “gallery” to see if Johnny’s really paying attention or if Sally still has the photo of you two on her wall, all while trying to actively listen to the person speaking. And while you’re doing this, you have 10 (or however many coworkers you have) other sets of eyes looking right into the camera, which is staring right back at you. It shatters your sense of privacy and forces you to be intimate with one another. Because of the discomfort this causes for some, your body can have a “fight or flight” reaction, which can be physically draining.
But the one gaze you have to be most concerned about is your own. Your own webcam is also a contributing factor to your digital fatigue. One aspect is the nagging feeling you’re constantly on display during the entire meeting. You have to act attentive, put on your best face and be present at every moment. Being hyper-aware of yourself, your actions and your surroundings can be extremely stressful. You’re not only highly tuned in to what the speaker is saying, but also to what you look like, what you’re doing, what’s happening behind you, whether your child is going to pop in the room at any given moment, and on and on. Even for the most vain of people, seeing yourself speak during every conversation when you’re not used to it can throw you for a loop.
While these video conferences can wear you out both mentally and physically, there are some steps you can take to manage the stress, anxiety and fatigue before hopping on your next virtual call.
We may be tempted to make every conversation a virtual call so we have an excuse to see a familiar face, but it’s not always always necessary to flip on the webcam and have a quick conversation. By turning off the camera or using your cellphone, you’re eliminating all visual cues and relying solely on sound to interpret your conversations. It’s less for your brain to focus on and easier for you to manage the conversation.
If you’ve tried making the meeting a phone call and your coworker insists on showing you their new virtual background, try turning your own camera off or hiding yourself from the gallery view. Most of our anxiety and exhaustion comes from staring at our reflections for hours on end, so why not just hide yourself all together?
Some people might think your lack of camera access means you are disconnected or unengaged in the conversation. If you’re required to show yourself, show you’re present and attentive at the beginning of the meeting, then turn your camera off. And when you want to chime in, turn your camera on while you converse, and then off again when you’re done.
Yes, it makes for a fun social media post (just look at ours!), but you really don’t need to be looking at a classroom of coworkers every meeting. If you’re that curious to know what all your coworkers are doing during the meeting, you might not be very engaged in the meeting itself. In your next meeting, utilize the “speaker view” and save your energy for the person that’s talking. What they’re saying is probably more important than your other coworker’s cat walking across the screen.
We’re all busy people with a thousand tabs open between our internet browsers and post-it notes, but one thing that makes us so exhausted after video calls is our constant need to multitask during all of our meetings. Your brain is in five different places trying to handle everything that needs to get done. It’s mentally taxing to tune in and out of conversations, and it’s impossible to do so seamlessly. Hit snooze on all the notifications, close some tabs and keep your mind where your virtual body is.
If you find yourself constantly glued to your chair with your eyes locked on the screen, it can help to get up and take 10-minute breaks between meetings. Let yourself recharge by walking away from the desk, running to the mailbox or getting another snack before joining the next conversation. Not having a break prevents your brain from gracefully shifting gears and strains your eyes for an extended period of time, leaving you more tired than you would be after an in-person meeting.
As for your social life via Zoom, having a virtual happy hour every other day with your friends or people you haven’t talked to since college graduation can be just as exhausting as having back-to-back meetings all day. You’re spending even more time locked into your computer than you really need to be. Set aside certain times to catch up with your friends, and be aware of when you might need to pass on a virtual hangout if you’re already feeling fatigued to help you better balance your on-screen and off-screen time. Your friends will still be there.
The future is up in the air for now, but working remotely is a new norm for many of us. This change in how we communicate with friends, family members and colleagues can leave us anxious and exhausted as we navigate our everyday life, but looking out for your own sanity and personal well-being shouldn’t take a back seat. Until we can click “Leave the Meeting” one last time and meet in person again, we have to learn what’s best for us as we embrace and adapt to the changes to come.