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With many businesses moving towards a permanently remote or hybrid working model, video calls are set to stay for the foreseeable future. We might be able to go to the pub now, but face-to-face meetings at work are still taking the form of video chats and conference calls on Zoom, Teams and other apps, leaving us exhausted.
Referred to as “Zoom fatigue”, the exhaustion stems from a combination of increased meetings and the pressure to have webcams on for all of them. According to a recent survey of more than 1,700 managers and employees by Virtira Consulting, a company focused on increasing remote productivity for companies, nearly half of professionals working remotely (49%) reported a high degree of exhaustion as a direct result of numerous daily video calls.
However, the strain isn’t being felt equally by all home-workers. Research shows the shift from in-person meetings to virtual ones has disproportionately taken its toll on women.
Watch: Stanford study finds 'Zoom' fatigue is real and worse for women
Earlier this year, researchers at Stanford University carried out a study to determine why people find Zoom calls so draining. The results found the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats and constantly seeing yourself during virtual meetings is fatiguing. In addition, the “cognitive load” we experience during video calls is higher because it is more difficult to read non-verbal cues such as body language and social cues.
READ MORE: Why virtual body language matters
Now, a follow-up study has revealed who is feeling the strain. New research by Stanford found that overall, one in seven women (13.8%) compared with one in 20 men (5.5%) reported feeling “very” to “extremely” fatigued after Zoom calls. The researchers surveyed 10,322 participants in February and March using a “Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale” to better understand the individual differences of burnout from video conferencing.
“We’ve all heard stories about Zoom fatigue and anecdotal evidence that women are affected more, but now we have quantitative data that Zoom fatigue is worse for women, and more importantly, we know why,” says Jeffrey Hancock, a professor of communication and co-author of the study.
According to the researchers, what contributed most to the feeling of exhaustion among women was an increase in “self-focused attention” triggered by the self-view in video conferencing. “Self-focused attention refers to a heightened awareness of how one comes across or how one appears in a conversation,” Hancock said.
Study participants were asked how concerned they felt about seeing themselves on camera and whether it was distracting. Overall, more women than men agreed that these were bothersome issues that often caused anxiety. The study results found that prolonged self-focus can produce negative emotions, such as stress.
Watch: Zoom Fatigue Is Real — Here's What You Can Do About It
The researchers also found several other factors that may contribute to Zoom fatigue among women. For some people, video calls led to feelings of being physically trapped by the need to stay centered in the camera’s field of view, rather than being able to move around. The researchers also discovered that while women have the same number of meetings per day as men, their meetings tend to run longer. Women were also less likely to take breaks in between calls too.
Other types of people were also more likely to find video calls fatiguing, including those with introverted personalities. According to the Virtira survey, 58% who described themselves as “introverts” reported that being on camera made them feel exhausted, compared to 40% of extroverts. People with anxiety, in particular anxiety triggered by social situations, also found video calls more difficult to navigate.
So what can we do to ensure employees are able to communicate effectively when working remotely, without risking burnout?
A number of companies are implementing no-video meeting days to give workers a break from Zoom calls. Recently, the global investment bank Citigroup banned work video calls on Fridays in an attempt to help employees escape the relentlessness of the "pandemic workday."
Additionally, employers need to ensure that all meetings are actually necessary. According to a 2018 survey of 2,000 people from the UK, France, and Germany, employees waste almost 13 days a year in unproductive meetings. Before organising a video call, consider whether the meeting could be better summarised in an email.
Allowing workers to turn off their cameras in meetings can also help reduce the strain too. Although video can be helpful for helping employees connect, many people are still uncomfortable with being on video, and managers and HR should work with them to adjust their work situation where possible. Employees should think hard about whether video is necessary for a meeting, and if it’s not, make video-off mandatory so that no one feels the pressure to keep it on.
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