Can you feel it too? Many of us have spent hundreds of hours on Zoom over the past few months, and many of us are feeling Zoom burnout as a result. Pandemic lockdowns left many companies relying on video calls to stay operational, and Zoom proved to be the most popular tool to host these calls. Usage increased to such a degree that Zoom’s share price rose almost 8x during 2020.

Zoom burnout has left people suffering from a host of Zoom fatigue symptoms and various other side effects of video calling. Why do Zoom calls feel so draining and distant? How to avoid Zoom burnout amongst your staff? Recognize that the drawbacks of Zoom relate to very deep facts about human communication, and onboard tools that better mimic the real-life interactions we are evolved to experience.

We Strain to Read Body Language

Human communication is complex. According to the work of Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, our communication is “7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal, and 55 percent facial.”

Non-verbal cues play a big part in in-person communication. In fact, the entire body plays a role in human communication. This is how we evolved. Before we even developed complex language, we were gesturing and pointing and expressing emotions with our faces. When language did arrive, it was always embedded within a rich, physical context.

However, one of the side effects of video calling is the need to exert more focus in order to catch non-verbal cues. In normal life, it’s easy to absorb people’s mood, intentions, and non-verbal cues. On Zoom – especially when many people use cameras and microphones of average quality – it is very hard. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are much harder to catch. As such, we subconsciously strain to get the cues we need.

As Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at INSEAD, explained in a BBC Worklife interview: “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting.”

We Become Super Self-Conscious

Another major cause of Zoom burnout is the long intervals of facing a camera square-on. Think about real conversation. Eye contact is intermittent and selective. People aren’t squared up to one another in a flat, face-to-face, mirrored stance. There is movement, dynamism, a varied visual flow. Above all, you don’t see yourself in the mirror over the shoulder of the person you’re speaking to.

But on Zoom? “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform,” says Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University who studies teamwork effectiveness and workplace wellbeing. For most people, being “performative” is stress-inducing and nerve-wracking.

Video calls provide you with a constant feed of your own face. We’re not used to this. We’re not meant to see ourselves talking, while we’re talking the whole time. 

A Business Insider interview with professionals revealed that most of them don’t feel hyper-aware of themselves during in-person classes. With Zoom calls, however, there is a constant “adjusting and readjusting,” and a persistent worry about “lighting and angles, even monitoring facial expressions to ensure we appear interested enough.”

This perpetual self-consciousness is unnatural and terribly draining. It is a major cause of Zoom fatigue symptoms.

The Complexity of our Relationships is Flattened

In real life, most people possess deep self-complexity. This means that we all have multiple self-aspects, organized in terms of contexts, roles, traits, behaviors, and time frames. This self-complexity is why we act differently at home with friends than we act with colleagues at work.

But when we spend our whole life on Zoom, this complexity is flattened. The virtual space obliterates those boundaries. Every Zoom call looks the same. Our experiences merge into one. Petriglieri puts it into context like this: “Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents, and date someone. Wouldn’t this be weird?” 

Zoom burnout is in part the result of this flattening. Everything in our lives becomes the same identical digital experience. There is nothing physical or experiential to tell them apart; after a while, they all seem to merge into one.

Video Calls Confuse Our Senses

Humans have developed various survival instincts that have allowed the species to get to where it is today. Glancing over our shoulder, taking in information from all angles, rapidly developing a physical map of important areas. These are all crucial behaviours that we perform subconsciously. But the forced perspective of Zoom robs us of these instincts. 

Zoom burnout is a biological reaction to being trapped in a square. It’s in part the feeling of being transfixed, forced to look in one direction, and not being able to check one’s vicinity, for hours and days on end. This is anathema to how we evolved to experience interpersonal settings, and it causes constant Zoom fatigue symptoms as our senses strain to adapt.

Video calls also greatly limit memory retention. The olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and haptic (touch/feel) triggers that one used to experience aren’t there anymore, and they play a strong role in embedding memories. Our experience is reduced to a highly 2D setting, so that even when we’re connecting with people we’re close to, there is a strong feeling of distance.

How to Avoid Zoom Burnout

To combat the side effects of video calling, companies need to embrace tools that insert spontaneity, surprise, and delight into the remote economy. Leveraging extended reality (XR) technologies is the key to warding off Zoom burnout.

XR solutions like the Spatial Web offer presence, connection, experience, and commonality in a way that is impossible for Zoom calls.

  • Presence. The Spatial Web can replicate environments in full 3D and allow users to “exist” in the virtual world through their fully-instantiated avatars.
  • Connection. Users can walk around and interact with objects, the environment, and even with other participants! This beats staring at a person’s video feed for hours on end in one static place. 
  • Experience. The Spatial Web’s fully-rendered 3D likeness of a real-life space, combined with a seamless first-person perspective, delivers an immersive experience that is missing from 2D video calls.
  • Commonality. Participants share the same field, can interact with the same objects, and converse as if they’re in the same vicinity. The shared perception gives the feeling of being one with a community that is bigger than a phone call.

In short, solutions like the Spatial Web better mimic in-person interactions, and are the key to alleviating the Zoom burnout that is now affecting millions.

Organizations can use it for interactive live events. Retailers and brands can use it for virtual shopping. Universities and schools can use it for online learning. Even celebrities and entertainment companies can use it for meet-and-greets and fan interactions. The possibilities are endless. Why settle for bland, two-dimensional interactions when one can provide rich, immersive experiences?

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