Why Zoom Fatigue Is Worse For Women—And What Leaders Can Do About It
One of Covid’s many unprecedented effects has been to thrust workers into the camera’s focus. We’ve found ourselves on video calls, sometimes for hours a day, watching—and being watched—during virtual meetings, conferences and team happy hours.
Unflattering angles and awkward interruptions have ensued. So, too, has ‘Zoom fatigue’, which entered the lexicon over the past year to describe a uniquely debilitating sense of exhaustion and anxiety (you know it when you feel it).
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, was quick to diagnose some of the problems last April in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He described video calls as unnatural, with a forced gaze that is draining and large faces on screen that can trigger our evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ reflex.
“Behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, co-workers and even strangers,” Bailenson wrote.
To measure this impact more precisely, Bailenson created a Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue (ZEF) scale along with researchers Géraldine Fauville and Jeffery Hancock. Through survey questions that you can take yourself, ZEF tracks five types of fatigue associated with video calls: general tiredness, social, emotional, visual strain and motivational.
The results of the latest survey, completed by 10,591 participants, show that women of all ages scored higher on all five types of fatigue. Nearly 14 percent of women report feeling “very” to “extremely” fatigued after video conference calls, compared to only 5.5 percent of men. Women also have longer meetings with shorter breaks and report feeling physically trapped by video calls more than men do.
WHAT’S DRIVING THE ZOOM FATIGUE GENDER GAP?
Researchers found that the biggest contributing factor to women’s Zoom fatigue was the increase in “self-focused attention” brought on by the self-view window display. This finding is in sync with existing research that shows women are more likely to self-focus than men when they are in the presence of a mirror. Prolonged self-focus can produce negative emotions, or what the researchers call “mirror anxiety,” as Hancock explained in a Stanford news story about the results.
Women also report being more distracted by nonverbal cues than men while on Zoom—such as exaggerated body language or emoji messages sent during a call—which can add to the cognitive load. The greater the load you have to process, the more debilitated or overwhelmed you can feel. The emotional load of, say, trying to be courteous to coworkers on screen also takes a toll.
“Several researchers have already pointed at the disproportionate negative impact of Covid on women such as greater economic hardships, heavier childcare load than men and also increased struggles with body image,” write the study authors. “In this way, our findings add to the body of knowledge showing the disproportionate negative impact of the Covid pandemic on women.”
WHAT CAN WE DO TO REDUCE ZOOM FATIGUE?
As workplaces transition to hybrid models of in-office and remote work, there’s an opportunity to reassess video conferencing—to maximise its benefits while minimising the psychological stress.
Some individuals may manage up suggestions, agree on video etiquette with peers or tweak their personal setups where possible. LED ring lights, once a niche influencer product, have gone mainstream for creating a halo of flattering lighting. Zoom offers enhancements like a ‘touch up my appearance’ feature, and there are myriad virtual backgrounds that will cover up household mess or give you bookcase credibility.
Still, the Stanford researchers emphasise that the burden should lie with company leaders who have the power to adapt policies and culture at the institutional level. Here are some ideas.
1/5 Designate Zoom-free time periods
Jane Fraser, chief executive of Citigroup, made headlines in March 2021 when she introduced a new company rule: Zoom-free Fridays. In a blog post, she wrote, “After listening to colleagues around the world, it became apparent we need to combat the ‘Zoom fatigue’ that many of us feel.” If a full day feels unrealistic, consider designating a Zoom-free afternoon or a minimum buffer of time between video calls.
2/5 Reconsider whether video is adding value
The quick shift to working remotely created pressure for many meetings to be done by video. After more than a year, though, we should be asking: why? Video calls tend to be especially useful when interacting with a new colleague; when you want to ensure everyone in a collaborative, small-group meeting is engaged; or when you’re leading a presentation. Often a voice call can be just as effective—while taking the edge off—or even an email or message can suffice.
3/5 Communicate when video can be off
Managers can lead by example and communicate when it’s acceptable to have video turned off. In some group meetings, you might agree to greet each other initially over video, and then all switch it off after a few minutes, or leave only a key speaker’s video on. Arvind Krishna, chief executive of IBM, posted a Work from Home Pledge on LinkedIn in which he stated:
“I will not ask people to turn their cameras on while on video calls. While I encourage the use of video during meetings so we can feel more connected, there will naturally be times when it’s just not feasible given home circumstances. During these times, I want everyone to feel comfortable that they can simply turn the video off as needed. Again it’s 100 percent okay.”
4/5 Modify the workspace
Standing desks have proven health benefits—and reduction of Zoom fatigue may be another one. Fauville, one of the researchers in the Stanford study, invested in a standing desk so that she could move more naturally during extended video calls, alleviating that sense of being physically hemmed in. Not everyone will have the budget or space at home, however, so a standing desk is a welcome and equitable benefit that employers could introduce as office spaces reopen.
5/5 Modify the video tool itself
Leaders of video conferencing companies, this challenge goes out to you: What can be done from a design perspective to reduce Zoom fatigue?
Maybe the self-view window could be made smaller, or it could fade to a softer focus or disappear completely after a matter of seconds. Perhaps the maximum head size could be reduced to create a more comfortable sense of distance between participants. In fact, Zoom has just introduced Immersive View, which enables you to place up to 25 participants into a single, more cohesive scene, such as a communal boardroom table.
You’ve helped make telework possible; please continue iterating to make it better.
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