How the pressure to perform leads to video chat fatigue

A screen showing people participating via the Zoom video chat app. Courtesy: Stacy Desjardins

Back in March, I was a Zoom ringleader, setting up the video calls with family across the pond in England and friends across the city as we navigated the early stages of life under lockdown “together, but apart.”

Nine months into the pandemic, still working from home and unsure if and when things will resemble some normalcy, now when I see a virtual meeting request pop up on my screen, my neck immediately tenses and I can feel my jaws tighten.

Video chat fatigue is real.

READ MORE: Zoom fatigue? How to tell loved ones you don’t want to video chat

The barrage of video chat meetings is exhausting and it’s no wonder — we are using these tools at a shocking rate.

According to Aternity, usage of Teams has increased by 894 per cent, Zoom by 677 per cent, Skype by 451 per cent, and Cisco Webex by 179 per cent since the global pandemic began.

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Spending ridiculously high amounts of time in virtual worlds, fatigue is bound to set in. Another research study shows that 41 to 45 per cent of employees have reported feeling burned out and emotionally drained from their work during the pandemic.

There are many contributing factors, virtual meetings among them. More specifically, their “performative” nature is a stressor for many. As we sit in our Brady Bunch style boxes on screen, there’s a sense we need to be “on” all the time. A certain level of concentration and focus is required for these types of meetings, with much more eye contact than we are normally used to in live meetings.

I find myself hyperaware in virtual meetings; not only very mindful of the eye contact I’m making while I’m speaking, but also as others are speaking. The end result is dry eyes, a dull headache and mental weariness after a long call. On average, I have two to four virtual meetings per day, while some of my peers are in back-to-back virtual meetings all day long. That cannot be healthy, mentally or physically.

For myself, initially, I had a difficult time mixing my personal and professional settings. The lines blurred very quickly. All of us suddenly had intimate views into our coworkers’ homes and personal spaces. With my (often very loud) kids at home, I found myself having professional video meetings sitting on my bed at times. It felt invasive, but it was the quietest space in the house.

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I also began feeling stressed about the so-called “fun” virtual meets, like birthdays, baby showers and group chats as we found ways to connect during the pandemic. Because these events were happening on the same platforms I was having “work” meetings on, they somehow brought on that same urgency of work, rather than relaxation or play.

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For many, Video chat fatigue can exacerbate symptoms of social anxiety.

“With social anxiety, we are already predisposed to feeling anxious about our presentation and fearful about potential judgment,” says Amy Deacon, a clinical social worker, with Toronto Wellness Counselling.

“These symptoms can be intensified when we are unable to make actual eye contact, read social cues accurately and receive immediate feedback due to technical delays.”

There is a very real risk of burnout as many of us continue to work from home with these virtual tools, especially with so much of our emotional and mental bandwidth already being depleted, Deacon says.

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There is so much to balance. Some have family and are juggling with our children’s virtual learning while checking in on ageing parents — and doing all this while trying to stay on top of work, she says. Others are single, potentially feeling isolated and preparing for the possibility of a second lockdown.

“The uncertainty and feeling of disconnect during this time is taking a major toll on our mental and emotional health,” Deacon says.

In her opinion, nothing beats the old school phone call. It eliminates any pressure regarding our presentation or appearance. She also suggests super succinct emails. No long-winded emails — the majority of us don’t have the bandwidth for those.

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One of my biggest stressors in virtual meetings is the technology itself. Admittedly, I’m not the most tech-savvy individual, so tech glitches have caused their fair share of anxiety — especially in scenarios presenting on live TV or for a virtual event.

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It’s difficult to stay focused on the content when I’m simultaneously playing the role of technical producer and director, and managing lighting, speakers and microphones.

Organizers of such virtual events have also experienced their share of tech tension.

“The biggest mountain we’ve climbed with the shift to virtual comes down to becoming experts in technology,” says Angela Osborne, co-founder of Atelier Collective, which is now planning a November event, The Atelier: Beyond 2020.

“It was so important for us to deliver a TV-quality production in a fully branded, customized virtual venue. It was a learning curve for our first virtual event back in June and we’ve completely taken it to the next level with our upcoming event.”

Veronica Boodhan, editor in chief of Salon Magazine, which produces the Contessa Awards, the largest awards celebration for the Canadian beauty industry, has been through the challenge.

“From connecting at a virtual cocktail party with red carpet interviews, to the virtual gala, where we’ll be speaking with winners in real-time, it’s important that we’re utilizing virtual capabilities to their fullest extent to help facilitate those connections many of us have been missing this year,” she says.

Despite the challenges of pivoting to virtual events, companies have also felt tremendous upsides.

“The most beautiful part of shifting to virtual is that there’s no limit on the number of ambitious women we can reach around the world,” says Taryn Herritt, Atelier Collective co-founder.

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While every video meeting isn’t going to be thrilling, there’s intrigue in knowing companies are raising the bar to produce high-quality experiences that transcend the limitations of the screen.

And for those snoozers, there’s always the audio-only option, too.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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