For decades, people have predicted that video conference technology will disrupt the practice of commuting daily to and from work, and will change the way people socialize. And here it is – 2020 forced us to use video conferencing tools at an ever-before unprecedented scale. In the past, it was mainly used for just a few elements of business meetings or hangouts with friends and family. Now, video conference tools are essential for our productivity, learning, and social interaction. We use it not only for fun, but mainly as a meaningful part of our work. And many of us find it exhausting.
Once we started to attend endless video calls for a few hours each day, people became tired. This term is called “Zoom fatigue”, and it describes the tiredness, worry, and burnout associated with overusing virtual communication platforms.
I know that there are lots of advantages of using video conferencing tools. Without them, it might not be possible to work from home. But there is a price that we need to pay for that sort of convenience. Video chats come with extra stressors, and there is no doubt about it. In this article I’m offering an explanation as to you why you may feel exhausted after having a few-hour-long video call a day.
What is the reason for Zoom fatigue?
A core psychological factor of fatigue is a reward-cost tradeoff that happens unconsciously in our minds. We constantly evaluate reward-cost tradeoffs before engaging in any kind of activity. Let’s say, you want to ride a bike, because you know that there is a strong link between effort (cost) and pleasure (reward). If you enjoy riding a bike, then the reward will be more significant than the physical effort. The link between reward assessment and fatigue happens due to activation of the dopaminergic pathways in the brain structures associated with reward, similarly to compliments you love to hear. They increase your energy and motivation, which is the opposite of fatigue . But how does this apply to Zoom fatigue?
It comes down to social interactions that are associated with our reward circuits. It is the oxytocin, a hormone involved in social bonding, that is responsible for modulating the same dopaminergic pathways as those involved in reward processing. We are social creatures, so we need to meet with our friends and colleagues. It’s good for our sanity. But it’s the way we interact with them that actually matters.
One study  revealed that live, face-to-face interactions are associated with greater activation in the same regions of the brain that are involved in rewarding, as compared to viewing recordings. Meaning that if you have more live, face-to-face interactions, you feel more rewarded and alerted. Now, let’s try to analyze what factors drain our energy while we communicate via video calls.
Lack of mutual gaze
One of the factors that plays a crucial role in social interaction is mutual gaze. Something that may seem rather irrelevant, but we actually pay a great deal of attention to it unconsciously. There is a lot of evidence for direct eye contact increasing faster responses, a greater degree of facial memorization, and elevated likeability and attractiveness .
Using video conferencing tools provides us with the ability to have some kind of live interaction, but it compromises mutual gaze. On video, gaze must be directed towards the camera in order to appear that eye contact with an observer is being kept. That, of course, is rather unrealistic when you have a video conference with more than one person. You need to decide if you want to see someone else or you want to offer someone else the feeling that you’re looking right into their eyes. That’s a hard choice, which makes it more stressful than rewarding.
Feeling of being watched all the time
When we are having a live conversation with another person, everything seems pretty natural. While speaking, you look into the eyes, sometimes slightly moving away your gaze onto something else in order not to appear like a creep. You know when to pause and when to speak up. Even if you’re in a conference room with 10 people, you don’t have this dreadful feeling of being observed all the time. You notice that people mostly look at the person who is currently speaking, and then they move their gaze onto someone else. But when you use a teleconferencing tool, things are different. Being physically on camera makes you very aware of being watched all the time. It’s because you don’t know who is looking at you. You just see a bunch of faces on your screen. Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace well-being and teamwork effectiveness, once said:
“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. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.”
It’s almost as if you were actually a conference speaker. For some it’s easier, and for some it definitely isn’t. But no matter how good people are on stage, using video calls for an entire day can be exhausting to anyone.
Moreover, there is another interesting tendency as far as video calls are concerned. Who are you looking at most of the time? The answer is yourself. For most people it’s hard not to look at their own face if they can see it on the screen. It’s just tempting to verify whether our head is at the right angle or if we’re having a good hair day and our shirt isn’t creased.
It’s harder to process non-verbal cues
Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, says Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead. While on a video chat, we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues. We can retrieve a lot of information not only from facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, but also from body posture and body language.
But during video calls, we are only able to see a face or even just a part of it. Such circumstances make it much harder for our brain to comprehend all non-verbal nuances, as compared to a live, face-to-face conversation. We need to devote much more energy in order to understand other people’s emotions.
People perceive the responder as less friendly
Silence is another factor that makes video calls challenging to our brains. It creates a rhythm and pace of the conversation. You know when you need to stop talking and let the other person speak up. It’s like talking on a walkie-talkie. If you don’t let other people share their thoughts, they will find you arrogant and unpleasant.
Silence and the rhythm of talking affect whether we perceive a conversation as friendly or not. One study  showed that delays on phone or conferencing systems shaped our views of people negatively. And the values of delay weren’t even all that substantial. The results proved that even a 1.2-second delay made people feel as if the responder was unpleasant or unfocused.
“Delays on phone or conferencing systems of 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused”
That’s something you need to take into account while being on a video call. When considerable delays occur, then the problem becomes more evident. People at such a conference will have trouble speaking up, and they will start shouting over one another. And this will lead to a greater degree of frustration and exhaustion.
Zoom fatigue can’t be attributed solely to that effect. We are also equipped with other tools which work pretty much the same way. But the point is that lately the way we use and perceive communication tools has changed. Gianpiero Petriglieri summed up the current state in the following words:
“Most of our social roles happen in different places, but now the context has collapsed (…) Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone, isn’t it weird?”
It’s a new situation which still requires a lot of research and I guess the way we currently use video conferencing tools will improve. But some experts already suggest limiting video calls to only those that are necessary. There should be more understanding that cameras do not always have to be on during each meeting. If you have 1-or-2-hour-a-day sessions, it may not be an issue for you. But there are plenty of people working from home, who spend a lot more time on that, and it can affect their mental health in the long term.
Boundaries and transitions are important. It’s definitely worth checking whether your colleagues are doing alright in that respect. Turning on a camera can build trust and reconnect us with the world. But still, there is a price people need to pay for that.
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