Zoom burnout is sapping your energy and focus: How to avoid the fatigue of too many video calls

Between video chat happy hours, birthdays, catch-ups with friends and family, and all-day work meetings, it feels like we’re spending all day on camera. And we are.

According to our latest research, the daily time spent on video chat apps has increased by 277% since early March.

With most countries still using social distancing to battle coronavirus, we need to connect more than ever. But all that time spent on video comes with serious side effects ranging from general fatigue to increased anxiety, stress, and even burnout.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your current personal and professional video call obligations, here are some ways to clear up your schedule, choose quality over quantity, and help your team, colleagues, or company avoid Zoom burnout.

Why video meetings are more tiring than in-person

As more people transition to working from home, many companies are using video calls to replace the in-person experience. (With those especially prone to micromanagement asking workers to go on video all day long to see them working!)

There’s no denying we need to connect and collaborate to do our best work. But how would you feel if you looked at your daily schedule and saw it packed with back-to-back in-person meetings?

Or had a manager sitting directly in front of you all day to make sure you’re getting things done?

Remote communication is a different beast than when you’re in an office. You can’t just try to recreate the processes and policies you used in the office when your team’s at home.

And why would you?

Even before the pandemic, most workplaces had a meeting problem with managers averaging 23 hours of meetings a week!

Meetings often take away time for more meaningful work without providing enough value in return.

Plus, meetings are one of the most expensive uses of time. One study discovered that a single weekly meeting of mid-level managers was costing the company $15m a year.

“When an employee sits through an ineffective meeting their brainpower is essentially being drained away.”

Professor Joseph A Allen – University of Utah

These days, however, meetings aren’t just for work. We get meeting invites for birthdays, social events, catch-ups, and book clubs.

And unlike the in-person meetings you can usually get through without too much damage, the added screen time and unique style of video meetings are wearing us down in a number of ways:

  • “Zoom burnout.” Time spent on video calls is both physically and mentally exhausting–especially when coupled with the added stress and anxiety of dealing with a global pandemic. As Dr. Suzanne Degges-White writes on Psychology Today: “You are likely to feel a kind of exhaustion from that screen time that’s unlike the exhaustion you’d feel from an hour at the gym.”
  • Brady Bunch-style visual confusion: The stacks of floating heads you see on video calls put added strain on your brain. As Julia Skar writes, the layout of video calls, “[forces your brain to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.”
  • Meeting recovery syndrome. Psychologists have found we all need a cooling off and recovery period after meetings. But also that its harder to recover when meetings aren’t engaging, last too long, or turn into one-sided lectures. As Professor Joseph A Allen explains: “When an employee sits through an ineffective meeting their brainpower is essentially being drained away.”

5 ways to overcome Zoom burnout and take back control of your day

Working from home, whether it’s during our current situation or after, means re-learning how to communicate and collaborate with your team and friends.

With nearly 100 years of combined experience working remotely, my colleagues at RescueTime know a thing or two about not letting video calls take over your day.

Here are some of our best tips for avoiding Zoom burnout:

(The same goes for whether you use Zoom, Slack, Teams, or any other video chat service to stay in touch!)

1. “Phone it in” for larger group calls

Zoom burnout is mostly caused by two issues:

  1. Too many video calls
  2. Too much time on camera with other people

While we’ll get into reducing the number of calls you do next, it’s important that you have a plan for dealing with the calls you do have to take.

One of the simplest solutions is to “walk and talk”.

Instead of sitting at your desk (where you are all day), take video calls on your phone and get out for a walk. As Dr. Suzanne Degges-White writes:

“It can be less stressful when you ‘show up’ in voice only. When we’re not chained into posing as a ‘living headshot,’ we can move around and step onto our porch or sit outside in the sunshine.”

Not only are non-video, video calls less stressful, but they’re a great opportunity to recover from spending all day sitting. Getting fresh air, taking a walk, and being around nature have all been shown to reduce stress and increase our happiness and productivity.

2. Embrace asynchronous communication (aka, why email isn’t as terrible as you might think)

Video chat apps help remote teams feel more connected. However, one of the best things you can do when working remotely is to actually reduce your meeting time. 

There will always be moments where you need to quickly get together and hash out a solution. However, switching your default to asynchronous communication is an easy way to increase your productivity and reduce stress.

Using email is an easy solution here. But it’s just as important to change your communication culture to be more purposeful.

Instead of an in-person interruption that is all-but-impossible to block asynchronous communication lets you choose when you’re available and how people can get in touch with you. 

Every communication app has some form or do-not-disturb mode (or you could just, you know, close them).

If you’re a Slack user, you can even use the RescueTime Slack integration to automatically block notifications and put you in DND mode when you’re focused on important work.

RescueTime for Slack interface to help with Zoom burnout

As Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia writes on Twitter, asynchronous communication is more thoughtful rather than reactive. 

Not only will this make you more focused, but it can also increase productivity. In a recent study published by Harvard, researchers found that the most productive and creative teams only communicate in “bursts” rather than being always available. 

3. Set communication expectations early and often (i.e. let everyone know it’s ok to slow down)

The reason most people fail at embracing asynchronous communication is that they haven’t set shared expectations.

The only way you get the benefits we listed above is if everyone understands how to properly communicate. Otherwise, you’ll come out of a peaceful and focused do-not-disturb-mode session to:

“HEY! HI! WHERE ARE YOU? WE NEED THIS NOW!”

Nobody wants that. 

Unfortunately, for most people, the answer isn’t to set clearer expectations but to be always on. In our most recent survey, 73% of knowledge workers said they keep their email and chat apps open all day. While 50% said their time spent on communication has increased in the past few years.

There are a few ways you can set proper expectations with your teammates about when you’ll be available. 

  1. Set “office hours” that everyone’s aware of. Discuss as a team what a reasonable time is for a response and set aside a few hours of the day where everyone is available.
  2. Use your status, email signature, and other tools to tell people when they should expect a response.  
  3. Lead by example. When we interviewed more than 700 professionals about their email habits, we found that if you check and respond to emails outside of work hours, your team will too. Set expectations and live by them. If they’re not working, talk it through and find a solution that does. 

Want more suggestions? Check out our in-depth guide on how to set expectations with the tools in your email client.

4. Use tools to become aware of how much you’re communicating (and cut it down)

It’s easy to get sucked into all-day video calls without realizing it. That’s why it’s important to get some awareness of how you’re spending your time.

RescueTime automatically tracks how you spend your time on digital devices and can act as a great “accountability partner” when you’re trying to reduce your video chat time.

First, check out the Applications & Websites reports to see you exactly how much time you spend in Zoom (or any other video app) throughout the day.

Zoom burnout - see how long you spend in Zoom in RescueTime

Next, you can set a daily goal for your video time and get real-time alerts when you go over them.

Setting a time goal to avoid Zoom burnout

This is a great way to see when your day is getting away from you and you need to cut back.

5. Give yourself permission to say no (when you can)

Your weekly schedule is probably littered with recurring video calls, meetings, and catchups that don’t need to be there.

Different people have different needs when it comes to socializing. And if you’re someone who feels especially drained after a day full of calls, you need to be able to say no or re-assess what you’ve committed to.

Work calls are typically non-negotiable. But social gatherings (and especially workplace social gatherings) should be optional.

Take a page from Facebook’s VP of Product, Fidji Simo, and regularly give your calendar an audit and give yourself permission to say no, cancel events, or postpone until your schedule clears up.

Video calls don’t have to add stress to your day

Whether the current situation is temporary or this truly is the “tipping point” for remote work, the truth is that we’re all going to be dealing with more video calls in the future.

Use these tips to help take back control of your day and avoid Zoom burnout.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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