Raise your hands if you’ve romanticised the idea of working from home before it was made mandatory. For many of us, the imagined gratification of being able to manage your own schedule more efficiently and, perhaps, carve out more time to pursue your own interests, have quickly given way to the exhaustion that comes with a never-ending barrage of virtual meetings. Video conferencing has become the default for just about every interaction that would normally have been conducted face to face. While technology has enabled us to stay connected, it has also given rise to a new phenomenon dubbed Zoom fatigue, in reference to the popular video conferencing app.
Virtual meetings have emerged as a source of anxiety for those working from home. It is tiring, and unnerving, to stare at a grid of faces on a screen, straining to figure out who’s saying what as the video lags. You become hyper-aware of yourself: your facial expression, ungroomed brows or that zit on your chin just adds to the stress. Then, there’s having to deal with erratic Internet connections while trying to process non-verbal cues like body language, all of which takes up a lot of energy. Dr Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, explains, “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally.”
Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Promises Healthcare, adds that virtual meetings make it impossible for you to scan the room unlike face-to-face meetings, and your social bearing is reduced to what is visible on the screen. “Virtual meetings mean our gaze is now focused only on what is confined within this screen,” Dr Toh comments. “We have to stare at this screen and then process everything we hear or see often over a protracted period within a certain frame. As a result, there can be visual overload and mental strain.”
After a long virtual meeting, spend a few minutes looking out the window, and whenever possible, rely on the trusty pen and paper to do the planning or note-taking just so you don’t spend all your time hunched over a laptop.
Another factor that we can’t ignore is the environment in which we work. With strict regulations keeping most of us away from our workplaces, we are reduced to whatever space we have left with in our homes that will function as a makeshift office. Factor in other family members and children who are also sharing this space and your personal work zone shrinks even further.
A culmination of the mental load that we carry during these meetings, the unfamiliarity of working from home, background distractions and eye strain inevitably lead to mental exhaustion. Even as we come out of the circuit breaker, companies may choose to continue telecommuting, which means that video conferencing may well become the new norm. For businesses that require collaborative work and frequent updates, daily video calls are a necessity that cannot be avoided. But there are some habits that can be adjusted to reduce the fatigue.
To reduce eye strain, it’s good to pry yourself away from the computer or mobile phone screen once in a while. After a long virtual meeting, spend a few minutes looking out the window (Dr Tan Yar Li, Consultant at Singapore National Eye Centre’s Glaucoma Department, recommends resting your eyes by looking into the far distance for 30 seconds every 30mins), and whenever possible, rely on the trusty pen and paper to do the planning or note-taking just so you don’t spend all your time hunched over a laptop. Take a break between meetings—the mere act of walking from one room to another sends a signal to your brain to switch gears. Screen time should also be regulated after office hours. Keep meetings short and reduce the number of meetings to what is necessary. Outline the meeting agenda so that all participants of the meeting come prepared and know what they’re in for. Sometimes, switching to a phone call or email can be quicker and less draining. There is no clear handbook on how companies should operate from home effectively, but open communication with their staff and empathy towards those who may not have the best conditions to perform optimally can help alleviate the stress.
It doesn’t all fall on the employers though. Dr Toh suggests that employees also take a more proactive approach. He says, “Define the perimeters in which they would like to have virtual meetings conducted. In cases when prolonged virtual meetings are unavoidable, they can clarify if permission can be given to practice adjustments to reduce eye strain. At times, a person may have to prepare for any interference from young children who find it hard to ignore the presence of the parent at home.” In essence, both employers and employees have to contribute in making the virtual workspace conducive for everyone. While technology has spared us from complete social isolation, we do need to construct a healthier relationship with our screens and not forget that what truly matters at the end of the day, is connecting to the people behind them.