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Tuesday, 20 October 2020 07:22

Change two simple habits to reduce Zoom fatigue

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If you suffer from mental fatigue after remote conferencing, you’re not alone. Millions of people are being affected and ignoring it could have serious, long-term consequences to your health and well-being.

In a National Geographic article in April this year, just one month into the pandemic, Julia Sklar writes, “The unprecedented explosion of their use [video conferencing apps] in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.

The results of this ‘unofficial social experiment’ now has a name; Zoom Fatigue.

Experienced by users of all conferencing apps, not just Zoom, the implications of ignoring this new dilemma could have serious and long-term consequences, not just in terms of your productivity, but also for your health and well-being.

Communicating virtually requires additional concentration

In a newly published white paper ‘Solving the problem of poor-quality audio in professional video conferencing’, Essex-based acoustic engineering company, Sound-Insul8ion, describes how communicating with poor-quality audio and limited visual display, increases ‘cognitive load’.

This increase in work our brains are having to process is responsible for the fatigue being experienced at the end of each meeting. And, with the acceptance of virtual meetings as a daily occurance, it is likely that many of us will have to continue this practice for some time to come.

And that’s a problem. Here's why:

In the short-term we are suffering mental fatigue, and we have no way of knowing what the long-term consequences will be.

To understand why this fatigue is happening we need to look at how our brains process communication in face-to-face situations. With this knowledge we can make simple, inexpensive changes to the way we conduct our virtual meetings.

Cognitive Load – taxing our brains to the limit

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) refers to the amount of working memory resources we have available.

The theory differentiates cognitive load into three types;

  1. Intrinsic – the effort required to understand a specific topic
  2. Extraneous – how the information is presented to us, and
  3. Germane – our ability to organise and remember the information

cog load3 

In face-to-face meetings, in a professional setting where all participants work within the same field and are experienced at delivering coherent and logical presentations, all three types of cognitive load can be expected to be reasonably balanced.

However, in face-to-face meetings we do not just rely on the spoken word. Instead our brains process information using a sophisticated collaboration of verbal and nonverbal cues. Cues which may not be readily available to us during remote interactions.

In video conferencing, all aspects of verbal and nonverbal communication are compromised

In a standard face-to-face encounter, it is believed that approximately, “55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.”


When communicating remotely however, each of these aspects become compromised;

  • Visually, participants are represented in a small area with only their head and shoulders being visible. The ability of our brains to interpret body language becomes significantly reduced.
  • Add to this poor-quality audio and the 38% of tone of voice portion becomes compromised, and
  • with an audio marred by excessive reverberation, or echo, even the 7% of actual words spoken can become a challenge to listen to.

As our brains work to compensate for this loss of visual and audio cues, the compounded cognitive load is eventually experienced as increased fatigue and decreased concentration.

The result is that meetings become less productive and participants can be left drained and exhausted.

The problem is greatly exacerbated when poor video and, particularly substandard audio, is transmitted.

Accepting that remote conferencing is here to stay, what can be done to improve the situation?

How do you mitigate the potential consequences before your well-being suffers significant harm?

Change just 2 habits to decrease Zoom fatigue

Decreasing cognitive load during remote conferencing is both easy and inexpensive, or free. You just need to make small adjustments;

Habit 1: Transmitting poor audio quality

The most important aspects of communication are that you understand what is being said, and you can be understood.

The research presented in the Sound-Insul8ion white paper demonstrates that poor audio quality is far more destructive to effective communication than poor quality video.

When you have to strain to hear what is being said, your brain must work harder to pull the information together and understand the overall presentation. The intrinsic cognitive load is increased.

As your brain works harder, mental fatigue increases.

If you are the speaker, you know that constant interruptions by people asking you to repeat or clarify points, causes you to lose your train of thought and the flow of your presentation. This adds to the frustration and fatigue, and has the potential to reduce your self-confidence.

However, simple adjustments to the décor of your homeworking environment, or the use of portable baffles designed specifically for homeworking, are low-cost ways to greatly improve the situation.

Habit 2: Sitting too close to the camera

As the chart above shows, 55% of face-to-face communication is conveyed via body language; subtle cues and expressions, which are often involuntary, help the brain build a picture of the overall communication.

During video conferencing, only our head and shoulders are visible, so many of the cues are removed. From our brains perspective, it is now having to piece together the message with far less information than it is used to.

The solution to this problem is surprisingly simple….

Sit further back from the screen.

By moving your chair back by just a couple of inches you will allow others in the meeting to access more of your nonverbal cues via hand and upper body gestures.

Help develop a new etiquette to reduce mental fatigue

In Julia Sklars’ National Geographic article, she described this situation as a ‘social experiment’. Interestingly, there are many articles on the Web at the moment describing it the same way. However, if this were an experiment, and a significant amount of negative consequences were being experienced by the ‘subjects’, it could be stopped.

This is not the case here.

This situation is being governed by a global health scare, and, despite the negative consequences on many fronts, there is no sign of it ending any time soon.

With this in mind, it is up to each of us individually to find ways to mitigate the difficulties being experienced. Not just by ourselves, but with everyone we are remotely communicating with. So, how do we do that?

Firstly, lead by example and take steps to ensure you are not contributing to the problem;

  1. Make sure the sound being transmitted from your location is clear. Without excessive echo or other distracting noises from your environment.
  2. Make a point of sitting slightly further back from your computer so more of your upper body can be seen.
  3. Don’t suppress your natural upper body gestures. Relax and be as animated as you would be if you were meeting with someone face-to-face.

Secondly, when you are engaged in a remote meeting, gently steer other participants to adjust their audio and visual presentation.

  • Most people do not realise the problems these habits of poor audio and reduce nonverbal cues are causing. And, as many of them are suffering from the same negative consequences, many will be grateful for the advice.
  • Point them towards information, like this article or the Sound-Insul8ion white paper, so that they can also get a better understanding of what is going on.

To get more information on the available research and the simple inexpensive steps you can take, download the Sound-Insul8ion white paper, ‘Solving the problem of poor-quality audio in professional video conferencing’.

Technology has enabled us to continue to work during these unprecedented times. However, we need to be aware that there are potentially long-term, health consequences. Some of these are already being experienced. Others are currently unknown.

Take steps to protect yourself and those you communicate with by understanding the potential problems and implementing strategies to mitigate them.

What's been your experience with Zoom fatigue? Do you have other solutions to reduce the problem? Leave a comment below.

Josette Dehaney

Josette Dehaney is a freelance writer with a focus on business and technology and a passion for nature. As the founder of and having worked on all aspects of Web technology over the past 30 years, she has a knack for helping people less tech-savvy understand the options available.

Experienced in SEO, and an avid researcher, she writes long-form blog posts, tutorials, white papers and visual content.

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