Overcoming ‘Zoom fatigue’

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 13, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic has increasingly shifted focus to virtual patient visits and teleconferencing, which can lead to “Zoom fatigue.”

  • The reasons why physicians (and others) experience Zoom fatigue relate to the need to focus intently and sustain eye contact, and to the increased cognitive load from the Zoom encounter.

  • Minimizing the impact of Zoom fatigue can involve taking adequate breaks and limiting visual distractions.

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If given the choice, 72% of Americans would opt for telehealth plus in-person visits for their healthcare, according to research conducted by Zoom.[] Physicians use Zoom and other conferencing software not only for patient visits but also for a variety of other professional duties including online meetings with peers, didactics, and journal clubs, as well as work-related social events. During the pandemic, Zoom use exploded.

Although Zoom is not the only option for teleconferencing, the product name has recently become synonymous with video calls.

Even though teleconferencing is safe and secure, it does not mean that it is without concerns.

One issue that arose during the pandemic and has persisted is referred to as “Zoom fatigue.” 

The whys and wherefores

There are several explanations for Zoom fatigue, according to an article published in the Harvard Business Review. A key contributor is the need for constant, focused attention to absorb information from the conversation. If your attention wanders while you are teleconferencing, you have limited means to get caught back up—no helpful side conversations with a person sitting next to you, and often no easy way to ask the speaker to repeat themselves for clarification.[] 

Another underlying cause of the fatigue is the constant gaze from locking in visually on the screen, which can be uncomfortable and tiring over an extended period. Normally, during a live interchange, people take visual breaks, averting their eyes, glancing out a window, and so forth. But it’s difficult to divert one’s eyes from the screen during teleconferencing without appearing to be distracted and uninterested.

The lack of visual breaks can be quite draining. 

According to the authors of an article published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, another stressor includes the cognitive load of consciously monitoring one’s own nonverbal behavior and making an effort to provide supplementary cues, such as exaggerated nodding to express agreement or making your voice louder to better engage the audience.[]

The authors also pointed out the possible negative impact of seeing a video image of yourself all day. 

“It is likely that a constant ‘mirror’ on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect,” they wrote. “But how this changes longitudinally is an important question moving forward.”

Finally, videoconferencing is a sedentary behavior. Studies have shown that being able to move around leads to better performance in meetings.

Related: Are virtual medical assistants worth it?

Combating fatigue

To cope with Zoom fatigue, various strategies have been suggested. Not all of these can be used with patients, but they may be useful with colleagues, students, and other work-related video calls.

The Harvard Business Review article recommends the following to combat Zoom fatigue:

  • Build in breaks during long calls

  • Switch to email or phone calls when possible

  • Engage the other party to provide more feedback to foster conversation

  • Make video-based social events “opt-in”

  • Reduce onscreen stimuli by disabling your camera or using plain backgrounds and asking others to do the same.

To reduce Zoom fatigue among students, instructors should be sure to use online teaching tools appropriately, according to an article published in NeuroRegulation. They can also solicit active feedback responses through polls, chat, etc, as well as by asking specific participants to speak and give feedback.[] 

What this means for you

With the rise of telehealth and videoconferencing during the pandemic, Zoom fatigue has taken its toll. It is rooted in the need to focus attention, and one’s eyes, for long periods of time while relatively immobile, and by the presence of ubiquitous distractions. Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to reduce the effects of Zoom fatigue, such as building in breaks and limiting on-camera time. 

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