When schools and businesses closed due to COVID-19, we all turned to technology to connect and get things done. For Dr. Shevaun Stocker, that meant an increase in videoconferencing.

As a professor of psychology and human behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Stocker’s screen time went from about three hours a day to 10-12 hours of almost entirely virtual meetings.

“We’re having to do our work differently and solve problems that were not problems a year ago,” she said.

A large bump in video calls can lead to what is being coined as “Zoom fatigue,” or feeling drained after a series of video calls and screen time. Virtual chats require more concentration than in-person meetings, Stocker said.

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All you can see is a person’s face, and less if they have the video turned off, so you’re missing all the sighs and giggles you have to draw from. With videoconferencing, the source of information is not as rich or informative, so cognitively, you’re working harder to gather information.

During videoconferences that are on gallery view (think: “The Brady Bunch” opening credits), your attention is split in so many ways, and you’re trying to track too many other factors at the same time.

“We all spent two months learning the weird faces and odd gestures we can make.”

Another distraction for the brain is you get a glimpse into your colleagues’ or friends’ surroundings, and your brain is trying to decode that information. With videoconferencing, we see ourselves on a screen as much as we see others, which leads to more knowledge of self, sometimes — and it's more than we bargained for.

“We all spent two months learning the weird faces and odd gestures we can make,” Stocker said.

So, naturally, we may be spending more brain power on impression management, or trying to influence how others see us or our surroundings. The social pressure of being watched during video chats can prompt feeling a need to perform, which can be anxiety-producing, according to the BBC.

Distractions are more tempting during video chats — checking emails or your phone. But the brain isn’t designed to work on competitive tasks simultaneously in a highly efficient or effective way, Stocker said.

It’s tough to listen to someone talk and read at the same time. You’re going to make more errors and not retain as much of the information. It's different than, say, washing dishes and listening to a podcast. That works well because the tasks don’t call for the same cognitive networks, Stocker said.

Add glitchy connections to a video chat, people talking over each other, lags, sometimes kids or pets talking or barking in the background — and those distractions draw higher levels of attention during a call. Also, whatever level you’re experiencing the pandemic, there’s increased stressors that are taking up some of our “cognitive and emotional bandwidth,” Stocker said.

Karen Kniefel and her sons, Caleb, 7; Austin, 5; and Landon, 14. Kniefel experienced "technology fatigue" when her sons' classes moved online.
Karen Kniefel and her sons, Caleb, 7; Austin, 5; and Landon, 14. Kniefel experienced "technology fatigue" when her sons' classes moved online.

Karen Kniefel, along with many parents across the region, experienced “COVID-19 technology fatigue” when her children switched to online learning this spring.

Coursework for her sons, ages 14, 7 and 5, called for the navigation of Google Classroom, Seesaw and Bloomz. Kniefel also submitted pictures, recordings and videos for her children’s assignments — completing an at-home gym class, reciting phonics worksheets.

“It was overwhelming,” said the Mountain Iron mother.

Ways to reduce Zoom fatigue

Dr. Shevaun Stocker shared ways to reduce videoconferencing/technology fatigue.

Build in breaks. If you know you have many videoconferences scheduled in a day, build breaks in between to step away from the screen. Walk outside. Pet your animal.

Stocker works 10-minute breaks between her video meetings as a refresher, and to take time to process information. To somewhat mimic when we’re meeting in person, move from room to room, building to building and get time to process, think and reflect, she said. That allows you time to engage in your work, and that’s really important.

Choose quality over quantity and be selective about how you’re communicating. Consider if you can accomplish a task over a call, text or email. You may lose some of the nuance and nonverbal cues, but it could still be as effective and less taxing on mental energy.

Mute your video or adjust your settings, so others can still see you on video, but you don’t see yourself. This is a good idea if self-criticism is an area of vulnerability, Stocker said.

Create a relaxed culture. If you’re conducting an online meeting, feel free to tell people to turn off their video at any time. Set the norm that that’s regular practice.

Don’t underestimate a phone call. You can pick up on nonverbal communication more than you would from an email, a text or even a video chat sometimes. Phone calls give you that rich tonality, speed, pitch, pauses and sighs that you aren’t exerting in an email. And it helps that you can focus on one person, one conversation.

We have a need to belong and a need for affiliation, Stocker said. She has done social-distancing meetups with friends in parking lots, and in her own yard. It’s important to get face-to-face interaction, if even 6 feet away.

Other humans provide comfort and a sense of belonging and connection. That can be “a real salve to our stress,” she said.