Ahh, virtual meetings … they are as ubiquitous as face masks and hand sanitizer in our post-COVID world. Like both of those essentials, we can count virtual meetings among the things we need. They keep us connected, engaged and productive through long, isolating days of quarantining and working from home; they allow us to mingle and collaborate from a safe distance, and they are truly revolutionizing how we work.
Gone are the days of suffering through rush-hour traffic to hit that exact 8 o’clock arrival time, prepping for client visits, or tuning out office noise. Videoconferencing gives us the freedom and flexibility to work more effectively from anywhere.
And yet... Even with the convenience and freedom that technology affords us, spending hours a day in virtual meetings can wear you out physically and mentally. If you’ve wondered if it was just you—then the good news (or bad news?) is that there’s now research that confirms it’s not. Up to 44 percent of employees surveyed by Robert Half said they have experienced video call fatigue since the start of the pandemic.
Women, in particular, report feeling a higher level of exhaustion after virtual meetings than men, according to a Stanford University study. Contributing causes include “mirror anxiety”, or being distracted by your own self-image, and meeting duration, since women’s meetings tend to run longer than men’s. Women have also been shown to feel more physically trapped by the need to stay centered in their camera frame, limiting their freedom of movement.
The Psychological Culprits of Videoconferencing Fatigue
So why is videoconferencing causing some of us angst? Stanford researchers identified these factors:
- Excessive eye contact: Unlike in-office meetings where everyone is watching the speaker, taking notes, or looking elsewhere, you are looking at everyone else during a virtual meeting—and everyone is looking at you, even if you're not the one talking. This can trigger anxiety, especially for the more introverted among us. The size and proximity of other people’s faces on the screen can also feel too close for comfort.
- Self-focused attention: Seeing yourself on camera, even if you’re just one of many faces in a square on your screen, can cause you to be more critical of yourself and how you appear to others.
- Reduced mobility: Back-to-back virtual meetings require you to stay put in front of your camera for hours without giving you much time to get up and move around. Not only is this sedentary behavior bad for your health, but it can also contribute to foggy thinking, researchers say.
- Cognitive overload: Nonverbal cues and gestures that come naturally to us in person can be harder to interpret over a video call. This forces us to put more thought into the signals we are sending and receiving.
Virtual meetings also come with plenty of frustrating distractions, including coworkers who multitask, don’t position their cameras properly or use the mute button, or leave their camera off entirely. So how do we stay relaxed and present in virtual meetings?
Research-Backed Tips to Reduce Virtual Meeting Burnout
Yes, there are some drawbacks, but we need to figure out how to make it work because virtual meetings are here to stay. To minimize virtual meeting burnout and make your meetings productive, meaningful, and energizing, start with these research-backed tips.
- Take control of your setup and settings. Find yourself staring at your own face? That’s science, apparently. A quick hack for being more focused is to hide yourself from your own view; most platforms offer this option. You can create more personal space by skipping full-screen mode and minimizing your screen so faces appear smaller, and using an external keyboard or positioning the camera further away. Switching to a standing desk can also provide some welcome mobility.
- Build in breaks. Back-to-back meetings can cause eye strain, headaches, soreness, and difficulty concentrating. Schedule 10- to 15-minute breaks away from your computer between meetings to give your peepers a break. If you can’t step away, at least take a gaze break. Audio-only breaks are often stigmatized, but during longer calls, it’s okay to switch off your video every now and then to give your eyes a rest.
- Be intentional. Resist the urge to multitask during virtual meetings. You may think you’re being productive, but research shows that people who multitask can’t remember things as well as their more focused peers. Close any open tabs or programs beforehand, put your phone away, and find a quiet, private space to log onto meetings. If you’re the meeting organizer, set an agenda for the call and establish ground rules, such as raising one’s hand to speak or using the chat feature to ask questions. Set an end time for each meeting—and stick to it.
- Forge connections. Make an effort to involve every team member in the call. Try designating a new person to lead each discussion; asking an icebreaker question early on; or breaking up large meetings into smaller groups. You can also encourage collaboration and camaraderie with fun team-building activities, such as virtual happy hours, trivia nights, and other socially distant get-togethers.