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Why Video Calls Are Surprisingly Exhausting

Expressing yourself and trying to read others’ faces in a grid of video feeds is a taxing task

Video calls also remove several of the nonverbal cues that humans rely on for communication. (Photo illustration by Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

Since stay-at-home orders around the United States were announced in mid- and late-March, about a third of the American workforce has transitioned to work remotely. For many, that has meant a 30-second commute, coordinating with others in the household, and an explosion of video calls.

For remote workers, video conferencing programs like Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts are suddenly absorbing more time in the day. They’re used for professional meetings and virtual happy hours, then for catching up with friends and family over dinner or while going for a walk. Jodi Eichler-Levine, a religion studies professor at Lehigh University, uses video conferencing to run discussion-heavy courses. As she tells National Geographic’s Julia Sklar, the experience is exhausting, leading to an after class crash.

And Eichler-Levine isn’t alone—people reporting "Zoom fatigue" find themselves mentally exhausted after what can be hours of staring at a grid of close-up portraits of friends or colleagues.

“The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, a management expert at Insead business school, tells the BBC’s Manyu Jiang. “What I'm finding is, we’re all exhausted; It doesn't matter whether they are introverts or extroverts. We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar context during the pandemic.”

Offices allow employers to keep an eye on the people working for them, managers to motivate others to be productive and colleagues to have spontaneous conversations that might lead to new ideas, as NPR’s Greg Rosalsky points out. Video conferencing and instant messaging systems are awkward by comparison. When you look at a video conference, everyone is staring almost directly back from the computer screen.

"When we're actually face to face, we don't stare at each other's eyes for that long," Stanford psychologist Jeremy Bailenson tells NPR. "People have very dedicated personal norms about the proper space one should leave between themselves and others," but video calls can push that line depending on how someone chooses to frame their face.

Video calls also remove several nonverbal cues that humans rely on for communication. Micro-expressions don’t come through on oft-grainy video feeds and sitting at a desk leaves little room for body language. At the same time, you’re aware that you’re being watched.

“When you're on a video conference, you know everybody's looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform.” Clemson University psychologist Marissa Shuffler tells the BBC. “Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.”

Speaking to National Geographic, Eichler-Levine concurs: “It's almost like you're emoting more because you're just a little box on a screen,” she says. “I’m just so tired.”

However, this isn’t the only way that people are experiencing the transition to videoconferencing. The structure of video calls, where it’s clear whose turn it is to talk, can be helpful for people with autism who have difficulty navigating in-person social situations.

John Upton, an editor at Climate Central who recently found out he is autistic, tells National Geographic that the move to video conferencing has reduced the small talk around meetings and the number of people talking at a time. The change has made the “ambiguous tension” of the workplace negligible, he says.

But if constant Zooming is exhausting for you, there are a few ways to adjust the experience to make it more manageable. To the BBC, both Petriglieri and Shuffler recommended limiting video calls to only those that are necessary. Petriglieri adds that positioning the video screen to your side may make it feel like you’re in a nearby room instead of under scrutiny. University of Québec psychologist Claude Normand tells National Geographic that turning off your camera and, if possible, taking the call by phone while going for a walk might be more productive.

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