Millions of knowledge workers have spent the last year working from bedrooms and kitchen tables, all facilitated by video-conferencing technology.

Video conferencing has become the de-facto mode of communication. We use it to talk to colleagues, talk to loved ones, and teach our children. Suddenly hundreds of millions of people are spending ten to twelve hours sitting in front of a screen, with an array of faces staring back at them.

Despite spending entire days in the comfort of our own homes, with no rush-hour commute required, people are increasingly reporting feeling exhausted, so much so that a new phrase has entered our vocabulary — zoom fatigue.

Researchers at Stanford University have now confirmed what millions of remote workers have long suspected — video conferencing causes greater stress and exhaustion than meeting in person. The new study from Stanford University’s Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is the first peer-reviewed article that systematically deconstructs Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective.

Bailenson’s research suggested four key reasons why video conferencing is so unusually exhausting and offers several solutions to make our days less tiring.

Close-up eye gaze

When someone invades your personal space, you tend to feel uncomfortable, stressed, and angsty. Drawing on research into personal space Bailenson argues that anything less than 60cm of distance can be considered ‘intimate’, the level of interpersonal distance reserved for families and loved ones. According to Bailenson “In general, for most setups, if it’s a one-on-one conversation when you’re with co-workers or even strangers on video, you’re seeing their face at a size which simulates a personal space that you normally experience when you’re with somebody intimately”.

Think about that for a second, in one-on-one meetings conducted over video, co-workers and in some cases strangers, are maintaining an interpersonal distance you would reserve for loved ones. No wonder we find this experience tiring.

Bailenson offers a simple solution to minimize the psychological toll this takes — reduce the size of your videoconferencing window, and try to move further away from your computer monitor to increase the personal space between yourself and the meeting participant’s faces.

Cognitive load

Another reason we find video calls so draining is due to the limited capacity of our working memory. During an in-person meeting, our brains focus partly on the words being spoken but are also automatically processing meaning from non-verbal cues. Is the person fidgeting? Are they rolling their eyes? Are they inhaling quickly in preparation to interrupt? Interpreting these cues takes little conscious effort.

Meeting on video impairs these ingrained abilities and increases the conscious effort required to interpret meaning from a person who is only visible from the shoulders up. You are forced to pay far more attention to verbal cues and constantly monitor for non-verbal behavior. This constant monitoring takes a toll.

Our brains can only do so many things at once and Bailenson says that that level of conscious effort required during a day of ‘zooming’ can be a major contributor to the sense of fatigue that we all experience.

He suggests that long Zoom meetings should require audio-only breaks, to help relieve the cognitive load of video interactions. “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen,” explains Bailenson, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

Increased self-evaluation

Imagine you are back in the office, and for an entire work-day, an assistant follows you around with a hand-held mirror, and for every single task you do and every conversation you have, you make sure you can see your face in that mirror. This sounds ridiculous, but this, in essence, is what Bailenson argues is happening on video-calls.

We are seeing reflections of ourselves at a frequency and duration that hasn’t been seen before in the history of people.

Being on camera 24/7 makes you hyper-conscious of your physical appearance and every expression you make. You are very aware of your own appearance and very aware you are being watched. With that comes the subconscious knowledge that you are being judged on your appearance and judged on your performance.

This is far more stressful than an in-person conversation and leads to feelings of negativity and exhaustion.

So what’s the solution? The answer is as simple as turning off your camera. Save your energy for when you need to present information and ideas, rather than feel you need to exist on a virtual stage the entire working day.

Constraints on physical mobility

Lastly, Bailenson highlights the damaging physical constraints that remote working places on us. When you work from home it's harder to demonstrate to people that you are not slacking off, so people tend to stay at their desks for much longer periods, ready to respond to instant messages at the speed of light.

In essence, we are all stuck in very small physical spaces, and most of this time equates to sitting down and staring straight ahead.

It’s very different from how people engage in face-to-face meetings. The pace, they move, they get up to use a white-board, and even take quick tea breaks. There are a number of studies showing that locomotion and other movements cause better performance in meetings. For example, people who are walking, even when it is indoors, come up with more creative ideas than people who are sitting.

The way to minimize the impact of this is simple — move more.

When you are under pressure from work, exercise can feel like an unnecessary indulgence. But there is an overwhelming volume of evidence demonstrating that even 30 minutes of daily activity can significantly boost your energy and focus, making the time you do spend working so much more valuable.

It’s not about zoom, it’s about how we use it

It is important not to lose sight of what an amazing tool video conferencing is. It’s allowed us to continue working, supported the continued education of our children, and allowed us to see our loved ones while sheltering in place.

Families, students, teachers, doctors, employees have all benefited immensely. The ability to use video technology to work from home has now become so ingrained that it looks set to be a permanent part of our future way of life.

The point is to think about how we sustainably implement this new technology and explore ways of embedding them that can prevent us all feeling quite so tired after another day of video calls.

It is also important to remember the context we are working in. We are all exhausted. Being on constant video calls is a painful reminder of just how dangerous the world has become.

The most important thing we can do is show our colleagues compassion, and make work meetings as enjoyable as possible.