After Lisa Jane Graham taught her first class by Zoom on “Spectacles of Power in Early Modern Europe, 1550-1700” a few weeks ago, she was worn out in a way she had never experienced in her 20-plus years of in-person instruction.
“I had this sense of mental exhaustion and fatigue and a certain sense of dissatisfaction,” the Frank A. Kafker professor of history at Haverford College said in a phone call, happily passing on a Zoom interview. “I can’t quite explain what it’s about. ... [The Zoom class] ends, and you feel deadened.”
Call it brain strain.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forces in-the-flesh life into the virtual realm of seemingly infinite Zoom meetings, more of us seem to be experiencing that same sense of lassitude, so much so that the phenomenon has earned the moniker “Zoom fatigue.” Of course, it’s not the only suddenly hot video communications platform that deserves some blame. Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Hangouts, and others are resulting in the same side effect.
“Yes, Zoom fatigue is real,” said Eric Zillmer, the Carl R. Pacifico professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University and the school’s athletics director.
He explains it this way: When the brain processes information in face-to-face interactions, it pays attention to what’s said, of course. But that’s only part of the story. The brain also incorporates a multitude of nonverbal cues, such as that slight nudge of the head in disagreement or sideways glance, a vocal pause of confusion, or quick uptake of air to interrupt.
“An amazing amount of neuronal mass is dedicated to reading people’s faces, sensing emotions, social cues, the ambience, intuition,” said Zillmer, a coauthor of Principles of Neuropsychology.
With the two-dimensional, Hollywood Squares world of Zoom, “that goes out the window,” he said. “We’re missing the social cues, and therefore, we’re missing a lot of information.”
The usually easy task now requires the brain to hyperfocus on deciphering that hard-to-glean, missing information, made more burdensome when the video is fuzzy or conversation suffers time lags.
“You have to fill in the gaps,” Zillmer said. “And that takes cognitive energy. You get tired more quickly.”
Gallery mode, where the brain is barraged with numerous heads in one-inch boxes, further wears out the gray matter as it struggles to decode multiple people, not succeeding completely with any single one, including the speaker. Imagine trying to do multiple crossword puzzles at the same time. Tough.
“The brain can only attend to one thing at a time,” Zillmer said. The frontal lobes, known as the conductor of the brain, may appear to multitask, but actually switch back and forth quickly. With Zoom, the complete communications picture never comes into full focus, leading to long stretches of hyperfocus, often to no avail.
“Our ‘conductor’ is getting tired from too many Zoom meetings,” he said, adding that coronavirus-centric content of many virtual gatherings only adds to the load.
Kate Scully, a Haverford sophomore sheltering in her hometown of Seattle, can relate. When the college moved to remote learning after spring break, she was often spending up to eight hours a day on Zoom, including virtual classes and social gatherings.
But recently, the 19-year-old bowed out of a video chat with friends. “Obviously, I’m happy to see my friends in any capacity that I can,” she said. “But still, there have been times … I’ve come up with an excuse to leave because I can’t focus anymore.”
For 31-year-old Rose Seyfried, Zoom meetings all day, every day have helped the recently hired director of creative operations for Condé Nast Entertainment get to know the team of 30-plus.
“You’re trying to present yourself as best you can,” said Seyfried, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “You are also looking at yourself, so you are constantly aware of yourself, exactly how you’re speaking and the frame, and if your background has anything distracting.”
Early on, she found herself working long days, without breaks. Now, Seyfried blocks out time in her calendar. “I’ll go out and take another walk,” she said, “or an online workout class.”
That’s a smart way to zap Zoom fatigue, according to Suzanne Degges-White, chair of counseling and higher education at Northern Illinois University, who wrote on the topic last month for Psychology Today.
The licensed counselor recommends breaking away from the screen to move your body and rest your eyes. Even two minutes of meditation can refresh. “When your eyes are tired, you’re tired,” she said.
Degges-White also suggests establishing clear boundaries between your home office and your living area, even if it’s the same space, she said. At the end of the workday, she recommends changing the lighting or ditching the coffee mug from the desk to shift the mood. “You need to feel a break between work and play,” she said.
Even though videoconferencing has proven a boon to many, allowing for telework and social connections across the globe, Degges-White suggests not taking every meeting on Zoom. Sometimes, she said, a phone call works just as well — or even better. Vocal intonations can be easier to hear, and you can move around, rather than being stuck sitting and posing for a head shot for hours.
Or perhaps you don’t have to take that meeting — or attend that happy hour — at all. “You don’t have to show up to every single thing you’re invited to,” she said. “Manage your time. Think about your priorities. When social obligations feel like work, it’s a warning sign.”
If you must Zoom, Degges-White suggested taking notes to help with your retention and focus, and she recommended avoiding back-to-back Zoom meetings to allow your brain time to process what just happened. “We’re missing that time to regroup,” she said.
For Deborah Greenawald, chair of nursing at Alvernia University, surviving intense, Zoom-filled workweeks required a little help from a Higher Power. During the semester, she regularly joined a twice-a-week, midday prayer that the Reading college’s Office of Mission and Ministry began offering when the lock down went into effect.
“It does make me discipline myself to take a brain break,” she said, “and be still in the middle of so much uncertainty and stress.”
Alas, the group gathered to pray on Zoom.