June 16, 2021

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The Crazy Reason Why Zoom Fatigue Happens Will Really Surprise You

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I had never thought of this before, but there’s one simple reason why you might be experiencing Zoom fatigue. It’s easy to overlook, although it is staring you right in the face.

On any Zoom call, it is physically impossible to look someone in the eye. Hang on while I explain this, because it’s a little weird. On most laptops or even a desktop computer with an external webcam, when you look at the camera itself, you are presenting an image of yourself that shows eye contact but you are not seeing the eyes of the other person. Look them in the eye (meaning, at the screen itself), and they won’t see your eye contact. You can’t win either way.

(You can try it right now. Look at your laptop or external webcam, then the center of the screen. You will notice your head tilting a little.)

It’s subtle, because we’re talking about only an inch here (or less). The bigger the laptop screen, the less eye contact you’ll have.

According to science journalist and book author Daniel Goleman (better known as the person who popularized the term emotional intelligence), we can’t look people in the eye on Zoom. He mentioned this during a podcast episode recently. To do that, we’d need a camera in the center of the screen or just above center, but that’s not possible with modern technology (yet). He explained how eye contact is an important part of social connection, perhaps the most important part of all.

So why does it cause fatigue?

For those of us who do Zoom calls all day, it multiplies and exacerbates the idea that we are not together anymore. Do about five or six Zoom calls per day for a few weeks, without having good eye contact, and there’s something that happens in our psyche. We don’t feel as connected. We don’t think someone is actually paying attention, even if we see them staring at us. It’s a non-verbal scenario. We’re picking up on the lack of direct eye contact even if we don’t quite realize it, and even though it’s only an inch.

“You either look at the camera or you look at the face,” Goleman says. “The brain doesn’t get the signals you pick up in real life.”

Goleman says emailing and texting is even worse than Zoom calls in terms of our emotional connection. Yet, fatigue happens when we sit through hours and hours of video calls without the social connection humans crave.

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We’re tired because the focus is on the exchange of information only and we’re not getting the cognitive rest that occurs when we chat in person.

Without direct eye contact, says Goleman, we miss all of the benefits of human communication. We don’t see, hear, or sense the nuance, and that means our brains have to work overtime. So, how do we overcome this problem?

One solution is to simply recognize it. Start with the why. We’re getting tired because we are not making eye contact but also because we’re missing all of the emotional connection. We are transferring data from one video stream to another. Nothing is real. That means we need to take far more frequent breaks. We need to stop and “smell the roses” quite literally. Take more breaks and find a real person.

The other issue is that it won’t ever change. As long as we’re looking at a screen, we won’t experience the same connection. That means we have to stop over-relying on video chats when we work remotely. Visiting the office, even once a week, will help.

I’ve also started using a wide-angle webcam. It helps because the people on the other end of the chat can see more context. I still get comments about my guitar sitting next to me and why I have a long table full of books. (It’s because I’m writing one.)

Lack of eye contact during video chats is one simple reason why fatigue starts. However, it’s not the only reason. At least being able to identify what’s happening is a step in the right direction.

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