‘Zoom gloom’: How to avoid it while still learning

Endless stream of video calls can cause exhaustion, dissonance and fatigue

You’re frozen. You’re back. Sorry, what was that?

Whether you're using Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or one of the many other video-conferencing programs that have boomed in the past year, we've all learned that constant video calls – for work, study or pleasure – can be tiring.

Many of us are suffering from “Zoom gloom” and, keen to start seeing each other face to face again, simply done with being online.

The good news is that it’s looking more and more likely that we’ll be able to meet in person again and, with that, we can expect fewer video calls. But the bad news is that some element of working and studying from home is likely here to stay, especially where it saves people having to travel for meetings. So how can we make video calls work for us?

Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton is a lecturer and researcher in cyberpsychology at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) in Dún Laoghaire, which runs the only dedicated MSc in cyberpsychology in Ireland.

“The course looks at how we interact with technology and with each other through technology. It’s been running since 2007 and has changed as technology changes. We cover how we communicate with and behave towards others online, and there’s also specific modules on gaming media, UX (user experience) and artificial intelligence.

"You don’t need a psychology undergraduate to apply, and we have students from all sorts of backgrounds including business, technology, teaching, journalism, creative industries and gardaí.”

Verbal cues

Over the past year, Fox Hamilton has watched with interest as the Covid-19

pandemic – whether we liked it or not – forced us all online.

“A lot of people find that one-on-one Zoom calls are okay but, after that, it becomes more difficult. It’s harder to manage verbal cues on when to talk – and when to listen. And much of this comes down to establishing trust: the more complex the task or information you’re trying to convey, the better it is to use richer mediums that can pick up more cues, such as body language and facial expression. If, however, you’re setting a date or sending a file, this can be done over email.”

A new research paper from academics at Stanford University and the University of Gothenburg surveyed 10,591 people and found that where there are many meetings of longer durations with smaller gaps between them, the more likely people were to experience "Zoom fatigue". Women in particular seem more susceptible to the phenomenon.

“In a face-to-face situation, you might go to get water, or walk to another room, but when you’re in an online meeting space in front of the camera, people can feel a bit trapped,” says Fox Hamilton. “Because we can see ourselves on the screen, this ‘mirror anxiety’ gives us more self-focus and we tend to evaluate ourselves more, which is particularly a problem for women. If you’re looking at people in the online space and they’re looking back at you, we’re staring and being stared at, which is tiring; we don’t look away like we would face to face. So we try to use more non-verbal cues, such as nodding more. In a face-to-face, someone may look off to the side but when it’s online, it can be distracting.”

So what can we do to avoid the dreaded Zoom gloom? Fox Hamilton has some tips:

* Where possible, use audio online, especially for people you don’t know. Talking to strangers online can be more tiring.

* Try to use your keyboard and a Bluetooth mouse so that you can move around a little bit.

* Try not to multi-task as it can lead to distraction.

* Stop “mirror anxiety” by turning off the function that allows you to see yourself.

* Try to keep meetings relatively short. People feel really tired after two hours. The ideal length of a class is about 40 minutes; if there’s a two-hour lecture, we give a break in the middle, and these breaks are important especially when you’re trapped in front of a screen and can’t move.

Fox Hamilton says that students have adapted well to being online, but those that are less adaptable are more likely to find it hard.

“If the [higher education institution] can make them feel included and respond to questions as soon as they can, it helps. Students have had a lot of stress over the past year – they may have lost work or income, there’s been family discord and stress with the pandemic. Try to be mindful about what feels good online and what does not. Positive, purposeful use of social media is associated with increases in short-term wellbeing. If you’re procrastinating, lurking, doom scrolling or passively using social media, this can have a negative effect on your wellbeing, so keep an eye on it.”

Finally, Fox Hamilton says that, if it’s all too much, say so. “Ask if you can make a meeting audio only. Colleagues can get together and see what the problems with meeting online are, and feed that back to management. At IADT, for instance, we don’t schedule meetings at the last minute on a Friday, and that can help. But this is an unusual time – and hopefully there will be less of it as we come out of this.”