When Zoom Fatigue Becomes Zoom Burnout
In Times Like These, online work presents an unprecedented neurological and psychological challenge. For our first blog post of the new academic year, Dr Kitty Wheater writes about Zoom burnout, and practical ways to tend it.
A few months ago I wrote about Zoom fatigue: that specific kind of tiredness created by hour after hour of meeting without meeting, presence without presence. ‘It’s the plausible deniability of each other’s absence,’ Gianpiero Petriglieri – professor of management at INSEAD – writes. ‘Our minds tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. Dissonance is exhausting.’
Five months into online working, we hear staff and students reporting digital exhaustion of a kind that goes beyond fatigue. They describe finding it hard to look at faces on the screen, or feeling the urge to sit on the floor rather than a chair. Some struggle to sit still, or get distracted by pictures on the wall behind the computer. You may find yourself tapping your feet constantly, or crossing and uncrossing your legs; your mind going blank when the person on screen mentions something that upsets you; you may find that you look down, or to the side, rather than at the screen. Alternatively, you stare at your screen fixedly, while not hearing what is being said. You may feel, sometimes, that you simply cannot sit there for another minute.
All these experiences make perfect sense if you consider how our social nervous systems are being challenged on all fronts right now. We are already under strain from the effects of physical distancing; our usual repertoires of human contact and connection have been profoundly altered. We have not seen our colleagues or tutors in person for months. If you are a new start, you may not even have moved into your office. Don’t forget what happens after hours, too. We may be unable to hug grandchildren or parents, and those of us who are clinically vulnerable cannot take socially distant walks with friends. When we go out, we must read the eyes and foreheads of masked faces, and listen extra closely to muffled voices.
These challenges are important to acknowledge. Although some may seem to be different – more personal – than those of working and studying, they are directly affecting our neurological and psychological resilience for month after month of online meetings and studying.
So intervention is needed, because online work is going to be here for some time. The good news is that this is an adjustment period, not the final picture, and as we talk to each other and find out what works, we can pre-empt Zoom burnout, and lay the groundwork for sustainability instead. There is much that we can do – and here is some of it.
Sit in the space where you usually take Teams calls, and notice what you see. Observe what is in your direct line of sight, and what is in the periphery of your vision: up, down, to the side. Where are your eyes drawn? If you are in a meeting and find yourself looking everywhere but at the screen, this is your nervous system seeking out regulation by looking elsewhere for comfort. It is not wrong, or a mistake. In fact, this is useful information about your state of mind.
Having noticed where your eyes usually go, you might put something nourishing in that place: a favourite postcard or houseplant, a pine cone, a keepsake. If your eye is drawn to a nondescript pile, you might tidy it.
Notice, too, if the position of your screen warrants some adjustment. Months on a laptop require the eyes to look forever downwards, drawing the head and neck down too. While aching shoulders and neck may ensue, this posture also – critically – physically mimics low mood. So if you haven’t already, you might consider a laptop stand (or a pile of books) and external keyboard, to protect your back, and your mental energy.
On your next Teams call, notice if your body feels rigid, or restless.
If you find that you sit very still in your chair, the legs may also be clamped together, and the breath shallow in the chest. Your body is in ‘freeze’: you are the rabbit in the headlights, and the headlights are Microsoft Teams. Experiment with wiggling the fingers, and the toes. These are small movements, and no-one knows that you are doing them. But notice the effect: you may suddenly take a deep breath, or wish to yawn. Your legs may unclamp. This is your stress system down-regulating; try it little and often, and see what happens.
By contrast, you may be so restless that you can barely stay in your seat. This is your body wanting to feel safe, so start by tuning in to the sensations of the soles of the feet on the ground. Sense your sit-bones on the chair, supporting you. It may be helpful to clasp the hands together, in your lap, for a few moments, and then wiggle the fingers. After your call, have a good shake out and stretch, and pause for a cup of something before you continue with work.
On a restless day – or week, or month – see if it’s possible to take your calls while on a walk. Our bodies were born to move, and by working with them, we restore our sense of stability.
‘But I have so many meetings,’ you think. ‘They are endless. I just can’t bear it.’
When you are at the brink of Zoom burnout, you may notice that the mind fills with preoccupation. Rumination swirls round and round in your head, much of it heavy and dark, and it follows you before and after your meetings. In order to keep up with work, you may find yourself cancelling Skypes with friends and family, because you can’t bear more time on the screen. Many of us will be going through days and weeks like this at the moment, and it’s a sign that some proper digital rest is needed, while we limp our way towards annual leave.
Thankfully, rest comes in many forms. Your attendance at some meetings may simply be unnecessary – so don’t go. Others can be worked around: take calls on the phone, where you can; on screen, try turning your camera off, and darkening your screen, like one of my colleagues. Sit on the floor, if you want to, and feel the ground beneath you, and the wall at your back. More of us will be doing all these things in the coming weeks and months, to make online working sustainable on a given day, and they are healthy and appropriate responses.
But if you find that your weeks drag on in this state of depletion, this is your cue to take a proper screen holiday. You may be surprised at what that looks like. Going into annual leave, I had a list of films I planned to watch. They’d be fun, I thought. But the days went by, and I walked, and rested, and caught up with friends, and when I looked at my computer, I thought ‘nah.’ (Eventually, I got through Matilda. In half hour instalments.)
It all adds up: the fuzzy boundaries between home and work; the months apart from loved ones; the reliance on Netflix for down-time; the relentless march of Teams invitations. Be gentle with yourself, and experiment with the techniques above. Our mind-bodies are remarkably resilient and adaptive, even when they feel like they’re not. Their signals of discomfort and fatigue are their way of speaking to us; and when we listen, and make changes, and listen again, they bounce back with admirable facility.