Anyone who has worked from home will probably be familiar with the miserable, draining feeling of having spent too much time on Zoom. Such is the pressure of all-day-every-day video calling that some companies have even announced Zoom-free Fridays to give employees a little time away from their screens.
The fact that video-calling is tiring, then, will not be news to many of us. But a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology explores in more detail who is affected the most, finding that both gender and length of time spent within an organisation both impact fatigue. And this suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to combatting video call burnout may not work for everyone.
Participants were recruited from a company with a largely remote workforce, used to online meetings even before the pandemic. The company has a camera-optional policy, with around 50% of staff turning their cameras off before the study started. Over nineteen working days, participants were asked to participate in meetings with cameras either on or off for two weeks before switching to the opposite option for the following two weeks.
Every day after work they also completed measures assessing how fatigued they had felt during the day, how engaged they had felt in meetings, and whether or not they felt they had a voice in the meetings.
The results showed that having cameras turned on did indeed make participants feel more fatigued. And this had a knock-on effect. Those who were more fatigued also felt less like they had a voice in their meetings, and felt less engaged.
Gender and length of time at the organisation also had an impact. The relationship between having the camera turned on and fatigue was stronger for women than men, and for those who were new to an organisation compared to those who had been there for a longer time. The indirect impact on voice and engagement was also stronger in women than in men and in newer than older employees.
These results confirm that video calling with a camera on can cause people to feel fatigued, leading them to incur other costs in terms of voice and engagement in meetings. The study also suggests that certain demographics are more likely to have such experiences, potentially affecting their performance and comfort in the workplace.
The team hypothesise that these penalties are incurred due to issues around self-presentation — that is, that being or feeling “watched” increases the need to manage others’ impressions and “directs our focus inwards”, tiring us out. Women and new hires may be particularly prone to anxious self-presentation because of existing appearance standards and a heightened need to appear competent and effective.
The team also notes that other forms of camera — those placed at different angles, for example — may reduce this fatiguing effect; it would also be interesting to see whether having the camera on but hiding the feed from your own screen has similarly negative effects. It would also be worth exploring the long-term impact of Zoom fatigue on general wellbeing.
There may also be positive impacts of having your camera on. People may feel more connected with others when they turn their video on; they may feel more comfortable when presenting; or they may contribute more confidently in meetings. And there may be a secondary positive impact — being in a meeting with others with their camera on could be more reassuring or connecting than one where everyone else’s camera is off. These are all questions that could be addressed in future research.
Overall, however, it seems that employers could benefit from allowing staff to take a flexible approach to turning cameras on, even switching to phone calls or audio-only options if desired by workers. While turning cameras off may have other costs (an inability to see facial expressions, for example), allowing workers to decide what works best for them will likely improve their experience at work.