‘I feel more brain dead’: How to beat Zoom fatigue

Five minutes until showtime, the lights come on and the stage is being set.

Even if you have played this role before, you feel butterflies as you step into character. Before you know it, you are center stage. The curtains come up and all eyes are on you.

Another Zoom lecture begins.

Okay, that was a little dramatic – but not totally inaccurate.

The feelings students get from online classes aren’t so different from getting ready to step on a stage. They must keep an unbroken focus and stay in a certain character.

The feeling of exhaustion that comes when the show is over may sound familiar too.

It’s called Zoom fatigue – it’s a thing. Well, it’s a 2020 thing. It’s the feeling of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion after a long day of Zoom classes.

Laurence St-Denis, a communication and management student at the University of Ottawa, knows all about it. St-Denis has video conferences on Microsoft Teams for work and calls on Zoom for school.

She adds that, like many, at the end of the day she, “feels more brain dead.”

If you’ve been feeling like St-Denis, it might be because Zoom is demanding new things from your brain. Things that face-to-face interactions don’t.

Why is this happening to me?

TED ideas’ website outlines reasons that Zoom fatigue might kick in.

Where’s the non-verbal?

On Zoom, we miss all kinds of non-verbal communication. We don’t realize just how much we depend on things like facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice to connect.

That can’t happen as easily on-screen, especially when the person you’re trying to see is in a one-inch box.

St-Denis says Zoom calls make her feel like she is losing that one-on-one connection with her professors.

“Even if my camera is on, I know he’s not necessarily talking to me directly even if I asked the question because he has all the cameras on.”

Paying extra attention for some sort of personal connection consumes a lot of our energy, making us feel like we need to go the extra mile to simply interact.

Is that really how I look?

Research about human emotion shows we respond more to emotion in our own reflection than we do in the emotions of others.

Having to be ‘on’ for a long time is tough enough. But seeing your reflection being played back to you makes you aware of yourself and your emotions.

St-Denis says she can’t help it. “I look at my teacher and then I’m like ‘Oh, do I look okay?’ or ‘Oh gosh, I’m eating on the screen, should I do that?’,” she says.

That self-awareness adds to the list of things your brain must take on.

When can I catch my breath?

TED Ideas also points to our tendency to blend our work and meetings together, forgetting to take breaks.

In person, we walk down the school hallway, take a left and stop at the café. We talk to new people. All the while, our brain takes a break.

At home, there’s no café, definitely no new people and often no breaks.

It’s easy to jump into the next thing when everything looks the same.

There are easy ways to avoid Zoom fatigue during the work day such as taking breaks, looking at something new or keeping your attention to one subject only.

There are easy ways to avoid Zoom fatigue during the work day such as taking breaks, looking at something new or keeping your attention to one subject only. Photo credit: Katelin Belliveau

How can I avoid Zoom fatigue?

The Harvard Business Review outlines helpful tips in this article from April 2020.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

It’s always tempting to try to finish that assignment or reply to that notification while you’re in class.

But according to the article, “because you have to turn certain parts of your brain off and on for different types of work, switching between tasks can cost you as much as 40 per cent of your productive time.”

An easy way to beat the urge to take on another task is to minimize windows that aren’t relevant to the lecture. And put your phone away. You’ll be doing yourself a favour.

Gimme a break

You don’t have to wait until the meeting is over to take a break. A break can mean downsizing the meeting window for a few seconds or averting your eyes from your computer completely.

Don’t lose focus, just lose contact with the vortex that is your screen.

Change your view

Fatigue is about the number of stimuli we let in. So, let’s tone it down.

Since you’re busy worrying about what you look like on screen, hide yourself from your own view. Focus on what you need to see and hide yourself, from yourself.

If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, adjust your view settings.

Whatever your feelings are toward Zoom, it’s not going away just yet. So, find ways to make your experience better. Get creative.

For St-Denis, setting goals helps. “This week… I gave myself the goal that I have to be one of the first ones to answer the question in the chat box,” she explains.

Remember, as a student, you’re simply in the audience. You bought a ticket to learn.

So, sit back and make it work.

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