People and Change

Virtual Fatigue

Imelda Rey
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Do you find yourself avoiding, cancelling, or rescheduling virtual meetings, virtual coffee or virtual team events?

Have you noticed that during the meeting you’re not present or focused, and afterwards you’re incredibly tense or tired? These are all potential signs that virtual fatigue has set in and you’re not alone. It is reported that 38% percent of workers say they’ve experienced virtual fatigue since the start of the pandemic, and anecdotal evidence would suggest that this trend is growing.

Virtual fatigue is the feeling of exhaustion that often occurs after attending a series of virtual meetings or other virtual events such as webinars or training. Stanford researchers identify four causes for virtual or ‘zoom fatigue’ - communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms and found that not only is it more fatiguing seeing ourselves in real-time, but the cognitive load placed on our brains is much higher in virtual settings. But why does this happen more so than the typical in-office meetings we are used to?

Our focus is diminished. When we’re at home and in a video call it’s easier to lose focus or get distracted. We tend to try to do things simultaneously answering an email or sending a text while attending a virtual meeting. The home environment also lends itself to other distractions, particularly if we do not have access to our own separate and private space for working. 

It is more difficult to ‘catch up’. In a face-to-face meeting it is easier to ask clarifying questions, pick up on non-verbal cues, and help the meeting stay on track. In the virtual setting if we miss something, have people speaking over each other or if there are technological challenges it becomes more difficult to stay engaged.

Looking at a camera is exhausting. In a virtual setting that involves cameras we feel obliged to appear engaged by looking into a camera for extended periods. This can also lead to extensive scrutiny of our own performance and appearance which can have negative long-term impacts on our self-esteem.

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Now that we know how to identify virtual fatigue it is important to consider how to reduce it with these handy tips:

Meeting Structure: Keep meetings short and try to limit the number of people present on calls. Where possible avoid scheduling consecutive video meetings.

Don’t forget the real world: Take regular and structured breaks during the day to come away from your workspace, and take time outside in fresh air and sunlight.

Avoid multitasking: Try to be ‘in the here and now’ when engaging in virtual activity. Avoid emails, texts, and external distractions where possible.

Turn your camera off: if it’s appropriate and you need a break, then turn your camera off but don’t be tempted to use this as an opportunity to do other things. Instead, use it as a way to really start listening to what people are saying and engage meaningfully

Switch up your communication method: Is a meeting really required? Would a phone call or email suffice? Think about the most effective communication method for your messaging and how you can get this across.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling, and take these steps to prevent fatigue before it becomes a problem.