We were only a month into the pandemic before “Zoom fatigue” started becoming part of the business vernacular. And now, more than a year later, we’re learning more about how aspects of video calls — like feeling restricted in movement, not being able to make true eye contact, and working harder to communicate social signals — can leave us feeling worn out during a typical workday. While a common complaint among a virtual workforce, Zoom fatigue tends to be more of a problem for women than men, according to a recent Stanford University study.
The study, published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, found that around 14 percent of women reported feeling “very” to “extremely” fatigued after a video call — more than double that of men. Why? According to a Fast Company article highlighting the study’s results, the concept of “self-view” — the window that shows how we look on camera to others during a video call — is mostly to blame.
As the article describes, the Stanford research team used two groups of data. First, they created a “Zoom Fatigue scale” in which approximately 10,000 participants answered questions related to video calls, such as: How concerned are you with your appearance? How distracted are you by the mirror [effect on video calls]?
Researchers found that women reported greater mirror anxiety than men, Fast Company noted. So that researchers weren’t solely relying on singular, self-reported data, the team also sent participants an open-ended question about their general experience with video conferencing.
The goal, Fast Company reported, was to analyze respondents’ pronoun use. Female participants tended to use more first-person singular pronouns that were more self-focused, instead of placing the focus on others with pronouns like “we” and “they” — a further indication that their experience with video calls was affected by the self-view mirror.
A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2016 showed that women are prone to self-focus, and can be distracted or even triggered by physical mirrors, Fast Company said, likely due to established societal pressures on women to place more importance on their appearance than men do. This can lead to long-term mental health issues, like anxiety and depression. So daily or weekly video calls — complete with an ever-present digital mirror — are making matters worse in a way that extends beyond those who identify as women: According to the study, introverts, anxious individuals, and younger individuals have also reported a higher incidence of feeling tired after video calls. Another factor was race: Researchers found people of color reported a slightly higher level of Zoom fatigue compared with white participants. Researchers are working on a follow-up project with scholars, including their Stanford colleagues, who study race and media, to explore what contributed to this finding.
Stanford News offered some tips to help employees battle Zoom fatigue: Implement no-video meeting days, make “video off” mandatory for some meetings so as not to make certain individuals feel pressured to keep it on when it makes them feel anxious, and ask questions — find out if team members are feeling fatigued.
There are also systemic ways to tackle the issue of Zoom fatigue. Members of the Stanford team have been in touch with platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams about their research, suggesting that they reconsider having self-view as the default format, according to Fast Company. One idea, the article noted: Have the call start with a visible self-view, which could then fade, become opaque, and reappear when needed.
Casey Gale is associate editor at Convene.