Psychologists find a key reason for 'Zoom fatigue' and why women are more susceptible

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  • Technology has enabled us to stay connected during the pandemic, but has also given rise to 'Zoom fatigue'
  • This phenomenon is found more commonly among women than men, findings of a new study reveal
  • The researchers also found personality and age discrepancies and suggested some tips to avoid this feeling

The use of technology has boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, transforming video conferencing apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams from simple business tools into a lifeline for schools and companies worldwide.

Zoom, for instance, which was established in 2019, initially peaked at just 10 million daily participants, but by April 2020, that number catapulted to more than 300 million, Reuters reported.

Constantly looking at yourself

But for some of us, the new reality brought about exhaustion from a never-ending barrage of virtual meetings, taking a lot more out of us than face-to-face meetings. This was dubbed “Zoom fatigue”.

According to new research, one of the drivers behind this fatigue appears to be what the researchers have termed "mirror anxiety”. In other words, you experience the mental strain of having to constantly look at yourself, for what might end up being several hours per day.

In a more surprising finding, the researchers noted that the mirror anxiety effect is more exhausting for women. Out of just over 10 300 people surveyed for the study, around one in seven women (13.8%) reported feeling "very" to "extremely" fatigued after Zoom calls, compared to around one in 20 men (5.5%).

"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," lead author of the study and psychologist from Stanford University, Jeff Hancock, said in a news release.

Hancock and his team's research was published as a preprint in SSRN and is awaiting peer review.

Follow-up study

The new research is built on a past study by the same Stanford researchers who explored why people might feel exhausted following video conference calls. Only, now, they have the data to show that mainly women are feeling the strain.

For the follow-up study, the team surveyed the participants during February and March using their “Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue Scale”, which allowed them to better understand their individual experiences of burnout resulting from extended use of video conferencing technologies over the past year.

Why women are more affected

According to the researchers, the feeling of exhaustion among women is due to an increase in what social psychologists describe as “self-focused attention” – “a heightened awareness of how one comes across or how one appears in a conversation”. Hancock explained that the effect can lead to negative thoughts.

To measure this effect on participants using the platform, the researchers asked participants questions such as: “During a video conference, how concerned do you feel about seeing yourself?” and “During a video conference, how distracting is it to see yourself?”

They found that women answered these questions at higher rates than men – a finding that is consistent with past research showing women are more likely than men to focus on themselves when looking in a mirror.

‘Mirror anxiety’

This prolonged self-focus can actually lead to negative emotions, or what the researchers call “mirror anxiety”, Hancock explained. But there’s a simple solution, he added: change the default display settings and turn off “self-view”.

The feeling may also be caused by the need to stay centred in the camera’s field of view, the team said, because, unlike face-to-face meetings, which allow people to move around and stretch, for instance, video conferencing limits movement. But, like the above, this can be addressed by moving farther away from the screen, or turning off one’s video during parts of calls, they advised.

But while women have the same number of meetings per day as men, based on their data, their meetings tend to run longer, said the researchers. Women were also less likely to take breaks between meetings, all of which contributed to increased weariness.

Personality, age discrepancies

Personality and age were also factors that contributed to how weary video calling made participants feel. Introverts, younger people, and more anxious individuals all reported higher levels of fatigue to some extent, while extroverts reported lower levels of exhaustion.

Exactly what might be causing these will have to be explored in follow-up studies with the team’s scholars, but the current research offers a good indication of these gender differences, they said.

And while you can make individual changes to your own work habits to avoid burnout, the researchers also placed some responsibility on companies and organisations to rethink how they manage their remote workforce. 

For example, they suggest the following tips for companies:

  • Organise more video-free meetings 
  • Offer guidelines on how frequent and how long meetings should be
  • Specify more and longer breaks between meetings

You can take the research survey here.

READ | Have introverts really fared better in lockdown?

READ | Lockdown mental fatigue rapidly reversed by social contact, study finds

READ | Phone call anxiety: Why so many of us have it, and how to get over it

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