An interesting article published by Fauville and others from Stanford University looked at this intriguing question.

There is little data on “Zoom fatigue”, the exhaustion that follows video conferencing mechanisms.  

The researchers tested associations between Zoom/team fatigue and five theoretical nonverbal mechanisms:

  • Mirror anxiety  
  • Being physically trapped  
  • Hyper gaze from a grid of staring faces  
  • Cognitive load from producing and interpreting non-verbal cues.  

They had 10,591 participants and showed that daily usage predicted the amount of fatigue, and that women have longer meetings and shorter breaks between meetings than men.  Moreover, women reported greater fatigue than men. 

They found five non-verbal mechanisms which predicted Zoom fatigue.  

They confirmed that mirror anxiety, measured both by self-report and by linguistic analysis of open ended responses, mediated the gender difference in fatigue. 

Over the last year, billions of conversations that would have taken place face to face in work meetings, classrooms or social gatherings have now taken place over video conferencing. 

Video conferencing platforms like Zoom have clearly provided tremendous value during this pandemic, allowing businesses and personnel to connect with one another socially and maintain productivity at work.  

This massive transition from physical to digital interactions has raised concerns about the psychological effects of Zoom fatigue, which refers to the feeling of exhaustion associated with using video conferencing.  

Zoom fatigue may be caused by the complexity of specific spatial dynamics taking place in video conferences or by the additional cognitive effort to interact with others in this context.  

Given that video conferencing is likely to remain an important part of the future work, and also as a way to stay connected with friends and family, it is important to understand the factors that may lead to Zoom fatigue. 

It is also important to examine whether Zoom fatigue is affecting different parts of the population more than others. 

The first mechanism to be looked into is mirror anxiety, which can be triggered by the self-view in video conferences that acts as an omnipresent mirror during social interactions.  

Psychological research suggests that exposure to digital and physical mirrors can heighten self-focused attention which can lead to negative effects, including anxiety and depression. 

The second mechanism is a sense of being physically trapped because of the need to stay within the field of the view of the camera to stay centred within the video stream.  

In face to face meetings one is able to pace, move and stretch but on video conferences the mobility is reduced to within a narrow view.  

Research has shown that reduced mobility can undermine cognitive performance.  

The third mechanism hyper gaze refers to the perceptual experience of constantly having people’s eyes in your field of view.  

During in person meetings, the speaker tends to draw the gaze of others but during video conferences all participants get the direct eye gaze of one another, regardless of who is speaking.  Being stared at while speaking, even by digital faces, causes psychological arousal and anxiety. 

The last two mechanisms are related to the increased cognitive load of managing 

non-verbal behaviour in this novel communication environment. 

The availability and proximity of non-verbal cues contributes to interpersonal communication, social judgment and task performance.  

While non-verbal communication can be non-conscious and spontaneous during in person interactions, video conferences require intentional effort and attention to both produce and interpret non-verbal communication.  

Attending to the production of non-verbal behaviours that normally occur naturally, such as head nodding at appropriate times or exaggerating gestures so they can be seen on the screen, can increase cognitive load in video conferences.  

Interpreting other people’s non-verbal cues can also be challenging given that the cues, such as an eye gaze, can be distorted by the placement of the camera or the location of the video on a person screen.  

This leads to situations where audio only interactions can be more successful in terms of synchronicity and collaboration than video hosted interactions.  

This study found and confirmed a number of hypotheses. 

First, Zoom fatigue increases with frequency, duration of meetings, and burstiness i.e. shorter time between meetings. 

Non-verbal mechanisms were related to fatigue. 

Women experienced more fatigue than men, even after controlling for differences in usage, demographics and personality.  

Women experience more mirror anxiety associated with the self-view in video conferencing than men and mirror anxiety was a primary mediator for the gender effect on fatigue. 

In addition to mirror anxiety, the non-verbal mechanisms of hyper gaze and feeling physically trapped also mediated the gender effects of fatigue. 

The greater fatigue for women compared to men, however, remained even when controlling for these additional variables. 

The London General Practice has initiated video consultations from the beginning of the pandemic.  The London General Practice also undertakes face-to-face consultations with appropriate protective measures in place.

Dr Paul Ettlinger
BM, DRCOG, FRCGP, FRIPH, DOccMed

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