Career & Jobs

Zoom, Pow, Crash: Why Video Calls Are Sapping Your Superhero Strength

I was entering my seventh straight hour of video calls. With my eyes heavy and my ears hurting from my headset, I hardly recalled what we were talking about. I just wanted to finish so I could take a nap.

Working on climate for the UN, I get to interact with fascinating people around the world. I love my job, but I noticed a change when everything shifted online. After weeks of screen-induced headaches, largely treated with increasing doses of coffee, I realized my pandemic working style was burning me out.

The solution came to me somewhat accidentally. In December, I returned to the US to see my family. After months apart, it was great to be together under one roof. However, to speak with organizations in Europe and Asia, I needed to start my days much earlier. Not wanting to wake anyone, I started taking early calls outside. In the dark, it made little sense to have my video on (I confess I was often wearing sweats). 

Quickly, a few remarkable things happened. Walking around in the morning air, I found myself enjoying my conversations again. Rather than feeling exhausted after meetings, I found myself feeling energized. I also found that my focus improved significantly. Science can help explain why endless videocalls were turning my brain to mush, and why I found walking so restorative.

Brain drain?

Videocalls exert a significant burden on our mental resources. Humans are visual creatures. We have even evolved a specific area in our brains to recognize faces. However, live video creates unavoidable lags and distortions that can play havoc with our brains. Neuroscientists explain these subtle flaws in the video can leave us feeling drained and alienated. It is not just our unconscious brain getting worn out. A Stanford study exploring causes of “Zoom fatigue” found that people are actively concentrating on the speaker’s face. During in-person meetings, we shift our gaze even when listening to a speaker. The close-up staring contests in video calls are an unnatural and uncomfortable experience for speaker and audience alike.

Another challenge comes from the performative aspect of video. We can be our own toughest critics, and video calls provide endless opportunities for unhelpful self-evaluation. That little window of our own faces lets us scrutinize our appearance and reactions in real time. We waste energy considering the right gestures and reactions to make us seem engaged. However, unlike during an in-person meeting, you need to contend with constant distractions on your computer from that urgent email to a coworker’s joke. Working to banish these distractions and maintain engagement is exhausting.

Before the pandemic remote work was considered a flexibility perk. Now, many of us have found that our work-life boundaries are hopelessly eroded. Video calls make it even harder to disconnect. We can have hours of consecutive video calls, without breaks and without moving from our seat. Is it any wonder that more

remote workers are reporting back and neck pain during the pandemic?

Turn it off

If you have been experiencing brain fog and burnout, there are strategies that can help. First, before your next meeting, consider if video is absolutely necessary. Maybe it is valuable when connecting with a new teammate, but less so for your daily catch-up. Change expectations by making video calling an opt-in decision rather than the default. If you decide to use video, do yourself a favor and hide the real-time video of yourself on your screen. It will just distract you and increase your stress level.

Next, find opportunities to walk and talk. Like me, you might find that your ideas flow more easily when you are on the move. Studies show that walking helps us to think more deeply and creatively. You will also be in good company.

Some of history’s most brilliant minds, from Alexander Hamilton to Steve Jobs broke down their toughest problems with a good walk.

If you can walk and talk, you will not only be doing your mind a favor, but your body as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, sitting for long periods creates risks for a variety of health issues. Moderate exercise like walking counteracts these negative effects. However, sometimes you need to be at your computer for meetings. If so, then be sure to build in breaks in your schedule to get up, stretch, walk around, or even do some quick exercise. These breaks will help you recover your focus. They can also raise your mood and energy levels.

Over the past year, many of us have experienced vast changes in our work environments. Video calls went from a rarity to a daily fixture in our lives. While it is wonderful to be able to connect with colleagues around the world, that constant connectivity comes with costs. We should be open about those costs and not be afraid turn the camera off when we need to recharge.

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