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‘Zoom fatigue’ takes hold as video-conferencing novelty wears off

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 19 Feb 2021

With many daily activities, including school and the way of doing business, shifting online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, video-conferencing fatigue has taken hold.

This is based on data collected by the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID) from various Cape Town businesses, their employees, as well as two organisational psychologists, which shows many people find video-conferencing exhausting and are suffering from so-called “Zoom fatigue” or “screen time fatigue”.

This fatigue, describes the CCID, is the feeling of dread and exhaustion when another online meeting pops up in the calendar.

In the wake of the COVID-19-induced lockdown, organisations scurried to introduce remote working policies, as people across the globe were forced to substitute their in-person meetings with virtual networking sessions, from corporate meetings, to funerals and educational activities, in efforts to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

This shift to an online way of work lit a fire under the uptake of the video-conferencing and online meetings platform Zoom, which is said to be used by over 300 million people globally every day. The App Annie State of Mobile Report 2021shows Zoom to be among the most popular video-conferencing applications in the market.

Zoom zombies

For Pam Bailie of Pam Golding Properties – who has been working remotely since the first lockdown was imposed last March – it feels as if the online platform has turned everyone into “Zoom zombies”.

Bailie explains that people talk over each other, or lapse into periods of silence, waiting for someone to speak. “Zoom makes me feel exhausted and disconnected. It is also weird being able to watch myself speaking; a bit like having a meeting in a mirrored boardroom.”

The novelty of meeting on Zoom has worn off, says Tasso Evangelinos, CEO of the CCID. “I find that after I have been on Zoom for an hour or more, especially when the meetings are with overseas colleagues late at night or involve a lot of participants, it is very tiring. I then need time to recover, which is time-consuming and stressful, especially if I have a whole day ahead of me.”

Melanie Stein, an organisational psychologist based in the CCID footprint in the Cape Town CBD, highlights that these frustrations are not unique.

According to Stein, Zoom fatigue has been described as “the tiredness, worry or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms for communication”.

“Given how widespread the use of Zoom is, this means that we now have a staggering number of individuals at the height of their productivity game, who are now potentially suffering from any number of the following symptoms: excessive exhaustion, eye strain, concentration and attention difficulties, mental fatigue and depressive thoughts, demotivation, poor interpersonal interactions, and lowered physical exertion that can lead to a dependence on stimulants such as sugar and coffee.”

Stein explains that much of the fatigue and anxiety associated with Zoom fatigue stems from changes in the way employees work.

As these Zoom meetings take place remotely, where there are other demands, attention is fragmented and the brain is forced to have many “folders” open at once; for example, work commitments, home commitments and childcare.

This, she adds, is underscored by general worry and anxiety. “It is a melting pot of psychological and physiological factors which, if not acknowledged and managed effectively, can lead to mental suffering at a level that severely impacts one's functioning.”

Productivity buzzkill

According to Evangelinos, many have complained about a dip in productivity after months of meeting online. “Online meetings can be detrimental to creativity in the long-term, as it is not as easy to share ideas and innovate without face-to-face contact.

“It also leads to a lack of connection between staff members, as there is no office banter, socialising or sharing of experiences, especially in this very stressful time we are living in. For this reason, at the CCID we have real meetings every week in the office and we find they are far more effective than Zoom meetings.”

Deborah Atkins, industrial psychologist at Deborah Atkins and Associates, suggests creating an opportunity during a virtual meeting where attendees can say how they are feeling. “It’s important to be able to express or verbalise how you feel or where you stand, as this will often not be observed through online communication.”

However, she adds there is a lot of power in physical presence, which online platforms simply cannot imitate.

Matt Brownell, head of brand marketing for Yoco, says the company is cognisant of the detrimental impact of endless virtual meetings.

As a result, Yoco has instituted “no meetings” Wednesday, when staff members are able to work uninterrupted by virtual meetings. “The duration of online engagement is also limited. These small changes have resulted in fundamentally different energy levels,” says Brownell.

Stein points out there are aspects of the work environment that Zoom cannot replicate. “The physical office environment allows for more effective face-to-face communication, which allows people to read body language and social cues which may be misread on a screen.”

Evangelinos believes that going forward, and with the rollout of vaccinations, there’s more likely going to be a hybrid way of working, with people splitting their time between working from home, and coming into a shared office environment.

“With the easing of restrictions, we are already seeing more people returning to the CBD and the office, and we look forward to welcoming back more people in the near future,” he concludes.