Virtual Conferencing Burnout

Focused on a webinar over the shoulder

Virtual conferencing has become important as countries lock down to slow the spread of coronavirus. Virtual Conferencing includes Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams as well as a variety of other platforms. Several months ago I spent a few hours experimenting with the new kid on the block - Zoom. I had been doing conference calls for years. Since I was working in the remote wilds of Saskatchewan in the nineties it was very common. Skype calls were a thing for awhile and when my wife and I were apart it was one of the tools we used to connect. But lag and bandwidth issues meant that I had moved away from it.

Suddenly I found myself in days filled with Zoom calls. As a lung cancer patient, I practice hand washing and social distancing. But to stay safe I spend much of my time isolated. Now I had a tool that could connect me across the country and around the world.

But why am I so exhausted? Surely spending time in the company of people that I found encouraging is a good thing. So why am I so tired?

When I was working on my MBA the idea of burnout was coming on the scene. Stress was a hot concept in human resource management. But stress didn't explain the mental and emotional exhaustion faced by some professions. Burnout explained why the helping professions, nurses in particular, struggled to maintain mental health. Now professionals recognize it across the caring professions. The concept has made inroads into other fields as well. Burnout is defined as physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.

Physical symptoms of burnout may include headaches and stomachaches or intestinal issues. The emotional exhaustion of burnout causes people to feel drained, unable to cope, and tired. Individuals with burnout feel negative about tasks. They have difficulty concentrating and often lack creativity.

When I started to experience extreme fatigue after participating in zoom sessions. I recognized the symptoms but didn't understand why I was experiencing it. So I started looking into it.

Why does Zoom burnout occur?

The challenges fell into three areas: lag and technology; interface; and social etiquette . Here is a summary of what I found. There are links to some of the resources I found at the bottom of the article.

Lag and technology challenges

Lag is a subtle problem. Zoom relies on internet connections to work. Right up front Zoom states that a hardwired connection is better than a WiFi connection. But most of us use a WiFi connection. That leads to a discrepancy between what is being said and the visible body language. Our lips and gestures don't jive with the sound our ears are hearing. Our brains have to make sense of that lag. The lag is often so tiny that you don't register it consciously. But it is hard work to keep up with it.

The software tries to keep track of who is speaking and shifts focus to them in speaker view. In the gallery view, it uses the yellow box. Background noise (children playing, spouse on the phone or a dog barking) makes the screen bounce. It can be challenging to follow. It is tiring to keep up.

Most of us aren't accustomed to seeing ourselves when we talk. The camera on us makes us visible to ourselves. We become very conscious of all the little habits that we have. And that contributes to the exhaustion.

Reversed images are another part of the image. Our brains are used to a mirror image. But the default setting in Zoom is to show us what the camera actually sees. When we go to make a gesture and the "wrong hand" moves, our brain is screaming "No the other left silly." As well we find ourselves exaggerating gestures to make them more visible.

All these challenges lead to exhaustion.

Interface challenges

The technology has a lot of tools to help us. Muting microphones, stopping video, and stopping screen sharing by participants can help us. But we need to learn to use them. Helpful people want to coach others. But most don't realize that the interface is very different on an iPhone or iPad from a laptop or an Android device. The results get confusing very quickly.

On a recent call, laughter resulted when someone held up an object they had created. As they were showing it they stopped talking. The silence meant the view changed to the person with a dog barking in the background. It was funny but frustrating. That learning and frustration is another contributing factor to fatigue.

We access Zoom on our electronic devices. There is the distraction of incoming notifications. Whether it is social media, email or an amber alert it interrupts your focus. Bringing focus back to the topic at hand takes energy. Most of us are using the devices at home there is distraction of things that need to be done. I see that cobweb!

Default settings aren't always easy to change. Some of them are safety and security issues that only the meeting host needs to manage. Others though are important for a good experience. I've been doing this for two months now and only discovered the "mirror" setting yesterday. Now I don't have to fight with "wrong left" camera issue anymore.

Social etiquette challenges

Angela Lashbrook says in an article entitled "Zoom Burnout is Real":

From the awkwardness and anxiety of staring at the supposed flaws in your own face, to not knowing when to cut a call short when you don’t technically have anywhere else to be, our new social lives are lawless, with few guidelines to let us know how to navigate difficult situations for which we have no prior blueprints.

We don't have social rules yet for the situations that arise in our gatherings. What do we do when someone breaks down in tears in a meeting? In real life we hand them a Kleenex box to let them know it's okay. Or we put an arm over their shoulder to let them know that they are not alone. In a Zoom meeting we might not even realize that it is happening. It is allergy season after all. We don't have the protocols for this stuff yet. Dealing with anger is another example. When someone drops out of a meeting, is it a poor WiFi connection? Or they are spitting mad at something that was said. It can be hard to tell.

Add in distractions - think children, pets, and naked spouses - or as one author put it "a stimulus rich environment." You have a recipe for triggering the fight or flight response.. The call I was on where a child fell down the stairs left me traumatized as though I had actually been there. You get the picture. More mental exhaustion.

Timing can be hard too. It feels like we can be available all the time. After all we don't have to drive across town or fly across the country. And so scheduling becomes an issue with back to back meetings. One day last week I spent seven and half hours in  Zoom meetings. Much of that time was spentquietly listening to others talk but the topics were emotional and at the end of the day I was done - exhausted.

We don't have Emily Post or Ann Landers yet to guide us in these situations.

So now that we have defined the problem - technology, interface, etiquette - the next question is the action question

What can we do?

I will freely confess that I don't have a lot of answers. Neither do most of the authors that I have been reading.

There seem to be four areas where we can do things:

  • Learn the technology.
  • Mindfulness training.
  • Basic meeting effectiveness.
  • Social etiquette.

Training

We don't expect to be able to drive a car without some training. Why should we expect to Zoom without having to learn? While the technology is relatively friction-less, to use it well requires some learning.

Practice. Get on the software and play. Find a friend and use your free 40 minute meetings. Experiment with the settings with the basic controls. Learn how to mute your mike with the space-bar or button depending on your device. Practice stopping the video so that you don't get crotch shots because you stood up in front of the camera. Or gratuitous boob shots because you leaned in to adjust something on the device.

Spend a little time on the environment where you are using Zoom. Cinematographer Bob Sacha highlights simple things that make the camera work for you. Managing sound with a proper microphone. Setting the device so that it is at eye level. Lighting so that your face is clearly visible. Managing background distractions. These simple steps will make your Zoom experience more positive.

Zoom has some great introductory videos. Take a few minutes to watch them at https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/206618765-Zoom-Video-Tutorials

Mindfulness

Mindfulness training has a lot to offer people who are suffering from burnout. Steven Hickman suggests five practices that can bring sanity to Zoom fatigue.

  1. Take a few moments before clicking “Start” to settle and ground your attention.
  2. Take time to truly greet whoever is in the room with you.
  3. Choose “speaker view” to minimize where you need to put your focus.
  4. Resist the urge to multitask.
  5. Try to take measured breaks between sessions.

     

He ends his suggestions with the following thought:

...this is a new place between presence and absence that we will have to learn how to accommodate as we go forward into the uncertain future. It is both better than absence (imagine life in a pandemic without Face-Time, Zoom, Skype and the rest) and not quite as resonant as presence (do we know if mirror neurons still function over the internet like they do in person?).

Social etiquette.

The social norms for good Zoom etiquette are emerging slowly. Muting your microphone when you are not speaking is one that is pretty well recognized. In a small group of four to six people it may not be necessary. But larger than that it becomes the common courtesy. Like letting someone finish speaking before you begin.

Signal that you have something to say by unmuting your mike or by raising a hand. It avoids the awkward pauses. Appointing someone to manage who is speaking next helps. Even in a casual meeting this makes the experience much more enjoyable. There is an electronic hand raising that you can trigger with a key stroke or button but my experience is that it doesn't work well.

If you are a group meeting regularly it makes sense to set out some ground rules. How will you handle emotional situations? In one of my support groups the social worker has offered to make followup phone calls if requested. Have a symbolic Kleenex box available to acknowledge the difficulty of the discussions. Anger is much more difficult. Tolerance depends on the group norm. Profanity can be another issue. The host has the ability to mute participants and it may be appropriate until they calm down. Agreeing to these rules ahead of time makes sense.

Before we leave the discussion of social norms, we need to talk about honesty. In most social situations we have little niceties that ease awkward situations. How to leave a meeting that doesn't seem to want to end? How to excuse yourself to get coffee or use the washroom are all little things that we know how to do in a real meeting.

Each group needs to find its own way to handle these situations. At least you should stop video. Make sure you mute your microphone before moving away from the camera. I'm a firm believer in the "If the meeting is over I have another obligation." statement to end my participation. Be polite. Don't let someone who won't go hold you hostage. In professional meetings, when the formal meeting is over, the meeting host/chairperson should "end the meeting for all." It clearly signals that the meeting is over. It reduces FOMO (fear of missing out) which can keep people hanging around even if they have no reason to stay.

Meeting effectiveness.

In another lifetime I had a mentor who would ask two questions when asked to attend a meeting. Is there a purpose? Do you have an agenda/plan? He would go to the first meeting if it didn't have an agenda. But he would make it clear that unless there was an agenda for the second meeting - he would not be back.

 

In conclusion, we are entering a new world of communication. We have the opportunity to be intentional about how we organize it. Let's make it an enjoyable and useful place to be.

Resources

https://onezero.medium.com/zoom-burnout-is-real-27e6938d0e1f

https://www.mindful.org/zoom-exhaustion-is-real-here-are-six-ways-to-find-balance-and-stay-connected/

https://blog.zoom.us/wordpress/2020/03/20/keep-the-party-crashers-from-crashing-your-zoom-event/

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/04/end-zoom-facetime-video-call-excuses/610369/

https://medium.com/@bobsacha/a-cinematographers-guide-to-looking-good-in-web-based-video-conferencing-fb6cf651714c

https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/a-theory-of-zoom-fatigue