Alisha Haridasani Gupta
— Emily Falk, professor of communication, psychology and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania
In March, a year into the pandemic, Jane Fraser, the chief executive of Citigroup, made a new workplace rule: no video calls on Fridays.
“Zoom-free Fridays,” she called it in a companywide blog post. “After listening to colleagues around the world, it became apparent we need to combat the ‘Zoom fatigue’ that many of us feel.”
For all the advantages and disadvantages of remote work, video calls have emerged as such a widespread pain point that the term “Zoom fatigue” has entered our lexicon — a catchall phrase referring to the tiredness related to video calls on any number of platforms.
Now, research from Stanford University published on Tuesday found that women experience significantly more Zoom fatigue than men. The research, which hasn’t been peer-reviewed, suggests that video calls simply amplify the longstanding gender dynamics in group settings and exacerbate an already wide gender stress gap, with women consistently reporting more stress and stress-related health conditions than men, according to the American Psychological Association.
The problem with video calls is that they’re unnatural and just not fun, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, wrote in an Opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal last April.
During in-person meetings, people aren’t staring into your face from a close distance — some might be typing up notes, some might be reading. But video calls disrupt that natural rhythm, forcing everyone logged in to stare at each other, a phenomenon known as “hyper gaze.”
“From an evolutionary standpoint, if somebody was very close to you and staring right at you, this meant you were going to mate or get in a fight,” Mr. Bailenson said in an interview (over video, though no journalists were harmed in the writing of this article). And constantly being on high alert creates stress.
During in-person meetings, people also don’t feel the need to exaggerate their nonverbal behavior — nodding, thumbs up, clapping — nor are people forced to stare at themselves. Again, video calls upend those norms.
“We somehow tolerate it all online because it’s become the default way,” Mr. Bailenson. “It’s just utterly bonkers.”
Over the last year — after Mr. Bailenson’s piece in The Journal elicited overwhelming feedback and questions from companies looking to help employees avoid burnout — he and two more researchers, Géraldine Fauville and Jeffrey Hancock, led a team that created the Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue scale, or the ZEF scale.
Through a series of survey questions, the scale helps identify and measure five different types of fatigue associated with video calls: general (overall tiredness), social (wanting to be alone), emotional (being overwhelmed and “used up”), visual (symptoms of stress on one’s eyes) and motivational (lacking the drive to start new activities).
In their most recent survey of over 10,000 participants, the researchers found that women of all ages scored higher on all five types of fatigue, amounting to almost 14 percent more Zoom fatigue, said Ms. Fauville.
In a second survey to try to explain this gender gap, the researchers discovered that women reported more mirror anxiety — a psychological phenomenon where seeing oneself in a mirror can trigger heightened self-focus, which in turn creates more anxiety and depression (particularly, as previous studies have found, among women).
The self-view in video calls — which is effectively a digital mirror — seems to be replicating the mirror anxiety effect online, Ms. Fauville said.
Women also reported being far more conscious of their nonverbal cues than men, which the researchers suggest adds to cognitive load (the number of things your brain can process at once to carry out a certain task; the more things you have to process, the harder the task at hand). It turns out that adding more tasks — like sending someone a thumbs up on a Zoom call — to a woman’s already overloaded cognitive load and increasing her already-high levels of emotional labor (the effort it takes to be a polite and caring co-worker) can be debilitating.
Emily Falk, professor of communication, psychology and marketing, and director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, who looked over the paper, found the Stanford research unsurprising — because it reflects and confirms the many studies on gender dynamics that make in-person meetings stressful.
But, she added, “anecdotally, as a woman who has been Zooming a lot and running a large lab and taking care of kids, the findings did feel acknowledging and that’s important.”
It is also difficult to draw causal links between Zoom fatigue and some of the psychological mechanisms, like mirror anxiety, outlined in the Stanford paper, Ms. Falk noted, because everything is exhausting at this point and Zoom might be just one of several reasons we have all collectively hit a wall. Once office life resumes, maybe everyone’s perspective might change.
“It’s correlational data and there could be other potential variables at play here,” she said. “When we’re feeling exhausted right now, how full is our emotional or mental tank to begin with?”
As companies consider post-pandemic work culture, the solutions to Zoom fatigue aren’t going to be as simple as switching off self-view (which the researchers recommend you do anyway) or abandoning video calls altogether, said Mollie West Duffy, co-author of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work,” who has been consulting with companies about plans to return to the office.
“I don’t think anyone has a playbook for how to do this perfectly, so we’re going to all try to do our best and then we’re going to have to be willing to have conversations two months in about how to adapt,” Ms. Duffy said.
For now, she said, leaders and managers should formalize the unspoken rules that have developed over the past year. “Some groups that we’ve been talking to have said, ‘Let’s all turn our videos on for the first five minutes of a call, connect as humans, and then turn it off,’” Ms. Duffy said. “Or telling your team which meetings should have video on and which meetings can have video off.”
“The default has just become video on, and it doesn’t need to be that eight hours a day.”
Certain meetings, like all-company town halls, may end up being video meetings by default because it is worse to have a few people calling in while everyone else is together in a conference room. “You don’t want people feeling left out and feeling like they can’t be heard,” she said.
In May last year, after listening to employees, Arvind Krishna, chief executive of IBM, posted a Work From Home Pledge on his LinkedIn profile. He noted, several times, that switching off video was “100% ok,” and also pledged to keep video calls shorter than the normal duration of 30 or 60 minutes, making them 20 minutes or 45 minutes instead.
“Video fatigue is real,” he said.