Work

How to manage virtual fatigue in your workplace

Aptly dubbed “Zoom and gloom” by the Daily Mail, the concept of “virtual fatigue” is a living reality for so many workforces at this very moment in time. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many teams into home and remote working, making conference calls the backbone of keeping in touch with colleagues, customers and suppliers.

With the benefit of the connected flexibility afforded to us by platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams comes an associated cost; a level of burnout from focusing so intently on what would previously have been a simple human interaction.

Why does video conferencing cause fatigue?

A very interesting analysis from The Psychiatric Times explains that regular social interaction stimulates the pathways in our brain associated with reward, thereby justifying any perceived effort to engage with another human being.

With video conferencing, there is no real connection: a whole lot of effort but little reward in terms of interaction.

Added to this are the problems of technical issues with connecting and maintaining good video call quality, the pressure to appear engaged at all times under the perceived spotlight of being “on camera,” and an increasing tendency for more people to be invited to video conferences than those who would attend a physical meeting.

How widespread is the problem?

Recent research tells us that 4 in 10 team members are suffering from video call fatigue, with almost 1 in 4 deeming video calls “exhausting” and “inefficient,” preferring alternative means of communication. Within this survey, 28% cited technical difficulties as their major frustration, whilst 19% felt that too many people joined video conferences and spoke over one another.

The picture painted is that a significant number of us who are burnt out from Zooming, Meeting and Teaming. A key takeaway from this survey lies in the 26% of respondents who feel that the perceived practicality of video conferencing has steadily worn off over the past eight months. Our response to video meetings is likely to continue on this downward spiral, unless an intervention is made.

That intervention starts with you and your own approach to video calls as an individual, and then as an employer, for the sake of your team.

Can we all adapt to more virtual meetings?

Whilst unlikely that we can fully “get used” to the level of concentration required by back-to-back video calls, we can all adopt some useful workarounds. The key starting point is that your day should not be based around video calls with little to no break in between sessions. Below are some tips for making virtual calls less tiring.

Overall

  • Don’t be afraid to revert to the good, old fashioned telephone for one-to-one conversations, or a conference call facility for group conversations. Whilst video conferencing can be useful for screen sharing, it isn’t always needed and a lot of progress can be made if everyone on the call has a local version of a document open.

  • When having a break from virtual conferencing, make sure it is a real break: playing on a computer game or browsing the internet is counterintuitive! Instead, we recommend getting up, stretching, taking some brief exercise and making a drink… all of the things that we were getting better as a workforce at doing in an office environment. This is especially important in the battle against musculoskeletal complaints, which are on the rise since lockdown imposed less-than-ergonomic working conditions on many of us.

  • Don’t be afraid to be militant about your diary, wherever and whenever you can. Suggest new times for video calls in a way that spaces them out in everyone’s diaries. Adopting a traffic light system - red for urgent; amber for less time sensitive; and green for information only - can really help prioritise which virtual conferences need to happen and when.

  • Create a separate area for work and leisure (if possible) – this will help you switch off from work and provide the break you sometimes need.

  • Don’t relegate communication with family and friends during this time. They will all likely want to speak via video call as well, so factoring in some time away from work meetings to engage in lighter hearted conversations will be a tonic.

Whilst on a video call

  • Unless presenting, it can pay to turn off your monitor or position yourself away from it, to avoid the visual over-stimulation that is the root cause of virtual fatigue.

  • Video calls can be very frustrating from a practical point of view. Internet connections rarely support the full call and having multiple participants start a sentence at the same time can cause a lot of interference, revealing the lag time of the connection. Instead, you could all agree to use the “raise hand” feature available on many platforms, and give the responsibility of chairing the meeting to the lead speaker. This role is of course quite wearing, so do pass the baton on from meeting to meeting!

  • You can help your colleagues to feel less over-stimulated by blurring your background via the features built into your conference call platform. This stops the eye from focusing on anything but you as you’re speaking, providing less stimuli to an already over-tired brain.

Conference call tech giant Microsoft has formally come out with three pointers, confirming that virtual fatigue is “a real thing.” The company advises that you:

  • Take regular breaks every two hours to let your brain recharge.

  • Limit meetings to 30 minutes.

  • Punctuate longer meetings with small breaks.

How can you, as an employer, help combat virtual fatigue?

Given the current prevalence of video conferencing for so many organisations, along with the significant numbers tallying up against this type of tech burnout, we recommend drafting and communicating a clear policy around video call best practice.

As per a successful approach to mental wellbeing, the approach must be mandated and instilled from the top down. For example, specifying a hard limit on video conference length and the overall number of meetings in a day will help your employees gauge when things are becoming too much to handle.

Lead from the top, by talking to your team about how you reduce your own virtual fatigue. It really does help to have a leader levelling with you and explaining that it’s OK to feel overwhelmed.

Finally, if you have a healthcare for business scheme, reach out to your provider and ask if they can help to encourage healthier practices when it comes to video conferencing. It always helps to reinforce the support available from your business healthcare provider.

Find out how Benenden Healthcare for Business could support your employees:

Got a question and want to know more? Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179.