When the coronavirus hit, one of the biggest upheavals was swapping office life for home-working.
But rather than the dream scenario some expected, it has brought new stresses and strains.
Back-to-back online meetings create feelings of exhaustion called "Zoom fatigue". And although one could write such afflictions off as first-world problems, understanding how hundreds of millions of us can work productively is crucial.
One recent study even claimed this is a bigger problem for women, 13.8 per cent of whom said Zoom calls made them feel "very to extremely fatigued", compared to 5.5 per cent of men.
A main reason is that users can often see themselves during Zoom calls, and as women are more “self-aware”, their anxiety levels are more likely to increase, the Stanford University and University of Gothenburg study said last month.
Dr Geraldine Fauville, an assistant professor at the department of education, communication and learning at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, told The National that much can be done to make video conferencing less anxiety-inducing.
Having a large face on the screen that appears to be staring at you – even when you are not speaking – induces fatigue, so Dr Fauville recommends reducing the size of the videoconference window and moving the screen further away.
As well as seeing less of other people, it can also be helpful to see less of yourself – so switching off the self-view function is recommended. Virtual backgrounds may also help.
While video conference calls can be of great value, Dr Fauville recommends mixing them up with other forms of communication, such as phone calls, emails and chat messaging.
“They all have different benefits and challenges. It’s not about replacing videoconferences totally … but I think being more mindful of when you are using these tools. 'Do I really need this conversation to be a video conference?'” she says.
Not everyone is able to choose the number of calls on Zoom (or other videoconference platforms) that they have, so Dr Fauville says responsibility also falls on companies to reduce the burdens placed on individuals.
“We hope the companies will adapt and have a discussion around their culture,” she says. “It can be, for example, having [calls] where no one is allowed to use their camera.
“Then reducing the number and duration of the meeting and making sure that your employees have a break in between.”
Breaks are regarded as being crucial to reducing Zoom fatigue. Dr Fauville recommends, where possible, finishing one meeting five minutes before the hour and starting the next five minutes after the hour, leaving 10 minutes to get up and shake off the “video-call feeling”.
Research by Microsoft that has been widely reported indicates that taking short breaks can improve patterns of brain activity, in particular by cutting levels of beta waves, which become more prominent after long back-to-back virtual meetings.
Beta waves are patterns of electrical activity with a high frequency and low amplitude, and while they are not in themselves seen as harmful, an excess is considered a negative.
"Having the right amount of beta waves allows us to focus. Prominence of this wave causes anxiety, high arousal, an inability to relax and stress," Dr Priyanka Abhang, a researcher in India, and co-author of a 2016's, Introduction to EEG- and Speech-Based Emotion Recognition.
The Microsoft research found that having breaks between meetings reduced beta waves, even after several subsequent virtual meetings.
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The importance of taking short breaks is also recognised by Prof Stephen Wood, a professor of management at the University of Leicester in the UK, who researches home working.
“There’s the break you should have from work – a cup of tea,” he said. “And move around and get your eyes away from the screen.
“Movement is very important – people making sure their shoulders don’t get rounded. It’s about ergonomics and well-being.”
He says focusing on something outside – such as a feature in the garden – is the type of thing people working from home can do to give themselves some respite from the pressures of work.
Concerns over Zoom fatigue play into wider issue, much discussed over the past year, about the overall pluses and minuses of working from home.
There are many obvious benefits, said Prof Wood, such as enjoying the peace and quiet of home and being able to think on your own.
On the other hand, in focus groups he has conducted, employees talked about missing the social side of work. This is about more than chatting socially over coffee, it also concerns being around colleagues to share ideas and brainstorm.
“Much comes out of impromptu encounters and corridor meetings, and the value of being able to nip into people’s offices which resolves issues quickly,” he says. “It’s how [the social side] is intrinsic to your job.”
He suggests a good way of making employees feel more connected when working remotely is to involve them in, say, working parties that make recommendations about staff-related issues.
“Virtual birthday parties – that’s not the issue,” says Prof Wood. “You have to involve people more.”
Typically, he said, people acknowledge the “double-headed nature” of homeworking and want to retain some element of working from home, aiming for a hybrid model.
“When opting for it they may be factoring in that the employer will not allow them to work five days at home, as well as the limits of what can be achieved at home,” he said.
5 ways to beat Zoom fatigue
1) Turn off self-view, especially when you're talking. Watching yourself speaking publicly can add to the pressure, and you can lose your train of thought easily
2) Minimise the window and listen, or consider having colleagues on multi-view. Having your boss or senior colleagues on a rotating full-screen can be intimidating, says Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson
3) Ensure you go for a walk or step into your garden or balcony between calls
4) Don't swap one screen for another, whether in a meeting or once it's ended
5) Visit your office or arrange face-to-face meetings with colleagues outside the workplace, when safe to do so. Your co-workers probably feel similar stresses