The COVID-19 pandemic made work from home the new way of working, which many found satisfying. But not everyone delighted in it—particularly when it came to video calls. In Singapore, a Qualtrics study conducted in 2020 revealed that a quarter of employees had experienced a decline in mental well-being as a result of stress. Of this number, 7% was attributed to fatigue and 6% to work-from-home arrangements.
Once reserved for distant or intimate conversations, video calls have become synonymous with the home office. From interviews, meetings, and discussions to team bonding and social activities, it kept things running and kept us connected.
Video calls might have made working from home a possibility, but their excessive use has taken a toll on our mental wellness, giving rise to the mass experience of “Zoom Fatigue”.
The phenomenon of “Zoom Fatigue” refers to that sense of exhaustion, worry or burnout associated with overusing video calls. It is ubiquitous with Zoom, but applies to all other video call interfaces as well.
According to research by Stanford professor Jeremy Baileson, there are four main reasons for zoom fatigue:
- Too much eye gaze
- Cognitive load from the lack of non-verbal cues
- Increased self-evaluation via the all-day mirror
- Constraints on physical mobility
More than just exhaustion, video calls affect us emotionally too.
If you ever felt nervous or uneasy before or during a video call, afraid to speak up, experience stage fright or felt left out, you might be dealing with a form of social anxiety, known as “Zoom anxiety”.
According to behavioural analyst and coach at Intellect, Suprita Sinha, it stems from the thought that you are being watched or judged negatively and feel overly worried and fearful about the social situation and the future.
While it is a lesser discussed concept, different from zoom fatigue, it has serious implications for our mental wellbeing and work. At the core of it, video calls tend to exacerbate human insecurities, making some things we do not think about become larger than life and making us do things we do not usually do in real life.
Here are four reasons why video calls make us anxious. Later in this article, we also look into how we can overcome them.
1. The lack of nonverbal cues
As humans, we rely a lot on nonverbal cues in communication.
They come naturally to us and help us understand one another efficiently, for example, making eye contact with a colleague to indicate a coffee break. They also help us discern the general sentiments of the room—for example, sensing the boredom in the room during a meeting.
Blinded by technology and design, we cannot tell how attendees in a video call are doing or feeling. Do they understand? Are they engaged? Do they need a break?
Sometimes, we misread intentions, like misunderstanding the natural pause in speech for a lag in transmission, resulting in awkward silences.
Other times, we talk over one another when we do not know who has something to say. Video call platforms are built to project one voice at a time, and often the loudest voice wins.
To speak or not to speak—this becomes a deliberate process. As a result, some may speak too much, some may become afraid to speak up, and some may feel left out when their voices are constantly drowned.
Nonverbal cues are our sounding boards, telling us if we are doing ok, how others are doing, and when it is our turn to speak or stop a conversation. And when our innate sensing mechanisms fail to make sense of the situation, we are often left feeling uncertain and nervous.
2. We pay attention to ourselves more than we need to
In video calls, we do not just see others—there is an added layer of focus when we see ourselves, too.
With our faces on screen, we start to notice the tiny twitch of our nose, the crease in our eyes and how we carry ourselves with great detail—things we do not bother too much about in usual times.
And the more we see ourselves, the more negative emotions and self-judgement we have, leading to what researchers call “mirror anxiety”. Research has shown that self-focused attention makes us more susceptible to negative effects associated with anxiety and depression.
The more we notice, the more we see, and the unhappier we get. Suprita shares that millions of people have had to deal with “Zoom dysmorphia” during the pandemic. The constant preoccupation with the minor or inconspicuous imperfections in one’s appearances by looking at themselves on camera all day exacerbates the feeling of unhappiness or dissatisfaction with their looks.
“Cognitive-behavioural models of body dysmorphic disorder suggest that mirrors can be a trigger for individuals, causing them to be obsessed with how they look,” explains Suprita. “The increase in self-focused attention brings along with it the associated distress.”
Harvard Medical School professor and Dermatologist, Dr Shadi Kourosh, likened the cameras in video calls to a “Funhouse Mirror”, because it is a distorted mirror, so people do not see a true reflection of themselves.
With the faces hyper gazing back at us on screen, video calls also make us feel like we are being watched and judged by fellow participants. As such, we spend an excessive amount of time thinking about how we present ourselves.
More than wanting to look presentable, we fixate on minor imperfections and minor gestures and get overly concerned with background images, sounds, and events coming from the environment.
3. Video calls make us feel trapped
The cameras used in video calls have a fixed field of view and to stay within sight, we end up “trapping” ourselves in a virtual box.
During in-person meetings, it is normal to make casual movements such as grabbing another cup of coffee, shifting eye contact, or taking notes—to break tension or relieve anxiety.
In virtual settings, however, we tend not to make unnecessary actions, worrying it might distract others, call more attention to ourselves, or make us look uninterested. We feel it is our duty to be seen and look like we are paying attention.
As a result, we keep our bodies still and our gaze glued to the screen, almost as though there is a virtual box that is restricting our movement in unnatural ways.
The distance we sit from our cameras can also make our faces appear too large for comfort. Stanford professor Jeremy notes that seeing faces at that size simulates a close-range interaction with somebody intimate.
Having boxed faces staring at us over a prolonged period can feel intrusive or intimidating, as though we have nowhere to run, it makes our brains go into a hyper-aroused state, preparing our bodies to mate or fight.
4. Video calls require us to multitask
In addition to fulfilling tasks over video calls, we are also required to be our own IT department.
In a survey of over 2,000 home workers, “having tech/audio problems and not knowing how to fix them” was the top trigger of video call anxiety. Such issues would be easily solved by the IT department, but when it is left entirely to us, our lack of knowledge and experience makes this a huge struggle for us.
On top of feeling incompetent, there is also the added stress and worry of holding up fellow participants.
Although video platforms are generally user-friendly, there is pressure to consciously remember to do certain things. For example, to mute when talking to our family and unmute to speak in the meeting, turn on or off the camera appropriately, to share the correct screen or documents during presentations.
Failure to do so would result in potentially embarrassing situations.
Overcoming video call anxiety
Although you might want to avoid situations that trigger anxiety, doing this may cause it to fester and leave work undone.
Since video calls will not be going away anytime soon, we must learn to recognize their symptoms, identify the triggers, and apply strategies that address them.
Intellect’s Suprita shares six tips that might help you to overcome video call anxiety.
1. Stay present
Staying present and focused helps fill in the gaps from the lack of verbal cues.
By focusing on the meeting, seeking clarifications, asking questions, or repeating yourself, you can start to build a more reliable picture of what is going on. It fosters clarity in communication and keeps the mind away from ruminating self-thoughts.
The moment your attention drifts to the negative thoughts, gently redirect it back to what is happening at the moment. A quick and easy way is to take a slow, deep breath, thinking “In” and “Out” with each breath, Suprita suggests.
When it comes to self-judgement, try a little self-kindness, such as repeating kind and compassionate phrases such as “You are trying hard, and you are doing your best”. You can also try breaking the flow of negative self-talk with this 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique to bring your mind back to this present moment.
2. Check your bias
For evolutionary purposes, we learn and register negative experiences more readily than positive experiences.
Neuropsychologist and expert in neuroplasticity Dr Rick Hanson explains that “our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences,” causing us to pay more attention to the negative events in our lives.
In this case, negative stimuli induced by increased self-focused attention cause our brain to remember and dwell over them.
To overcome negative bias, start by paying attention to your thoughts. Similar to the previous tip, try to stop negative self-talk as soon as it arises. Whenever judgemental statements such as “I shouldn’t have done that” or “I must have sounded stupid” arises, cut them off immediately.
You can do so by redirecting your attention to something else, says Suprita. Practice reframing the situation by giving weight to both positive and negative aspects, and then savour the good.
It takes more effort for our brains to register happy moments, so be sure to give extra attention to every positive experience you have.
3. Take a break
People experiencing zoom fatigue with long hours spent in front of the screen strains the eyes, the body, and the mind. Whenever you need to, give yourself permission to take a break.
Excuse yourself to get that coffee, do a quick stretch, and move your body mindfully. Break away from hyper gaze by turning off the camera momentarily, looking elsewhere to rest your eyes. Or simply just find a more comfortable position.
4. Adjust settings
To minimize mirror anxiety, adjust the settings to hide self-view. If possible, switch off the camera and be on audio-only.
To combat feelings of intrusion, switch to speaker mode. Get familiar with the video call platform your company uses by exploring and practising before calls so that you can operate it confidently in any situation.
5. Put on your work clothes
Working in your pyjamas is a bad work habit that puts you in the wrong state of mind.
Dressing up for work at home helps switch your brain from “home” mode to “work” mode, explains Suprita. The physical action of getting prepared for work shifts your mindset and enables you to feel prepared—when you look presentable it boosts your confidence, helping you to face the day.
6. Speak up
When the anxiety gets too overwhelming, consider letting your boss know how you feel.
For example, if discussions are often dominated by a few people talking over the rest, your supervisor might choose to invite people in turn to share their thoughts.
You can also suggest having more breaks, having sufficient time to prepare for presentations, allowing cameras to be turned off periodically, or even considering sending emails or using audio calls instead.
Mental wellness in the new world of work
While anxiety is a common human reaction to stress, prolonged or excessive anxiety may eventually lead to mental and physical health issues.
Intellect’s Suprita points out that physical stress in the body such as tension, increased heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, and stomach pain are signs that you may be struggling with anxiety.
“At this stage, it is important to seek professional support from psychologists, counsellors, coaches, and therapists,” she advises.
The pandemic turned the world upside down, forcing us to relearn new ways of communication. But in the midst of the chaos, remember to practice self care for your mental health, as you apply the various techniques to cope with both zoom fatigue and anxiety.
Patience is key—offer yourself some self-compassion as you navigate this new world.