How to Deal with Video Calls, Zoom Fatigue, and Remote Relationships

Photo courtesy of Anna Dabrowska/The Licensing Project

How to Deal with Video Calls, Zoom Fatigue, and Remote Relationships

You may have noticed: There is a special kind of tiredness that comes from a day of Zoom calls, despite the fact that they can take place without you ever leaving your couch (or your sweats). More strangely, this fatigue can hit even after meetings with coworkers you love and friends you miss very much.

Part of that feeling is explained by factors we can easily identify: Research tells us that videoconferencing invites cognitive overload from the strain of trying to read people through a flat grid of their faces. We allow colleagues to schedule too many of them too close together. And it’s freaking weird—and deeply absorbing and distracting—to be presented with the reality of your own face while you’re talking to other people.

But other parts are more diffuse; they are reasons that stem from the requirements of our present reality. Pretending to be energized by a conversation you had hunched over your laptop that you might normally have had on a laughter-fueled walk to get coffee is exhausting. Knowing that a screen is the closest you’ll get to someone you care about for a while is exhausting. Engaging in the denial of those cumulative losses—which can be easy to do, when the presence of someone is so closely simulated—is exhausting.

“We are exhausted by video calls being the only outlet for intimacy that we have in most of our relationships,” says psychiatrist and INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri. We asked Petriglieri (over the phone, don’t worry) to help us understand what we’re feeling and to highlight some solutions. More critically, he helps us identify some of our more complex emotions about the specific challenges of current at-home work.

A Q&A with Gianpiero Petriglieri, MD

Why do we find Zoom calls so draining?

I’m not sure that what we find so draining is the Zoom call. I think we find remote intimacy draining.

There is an aspect to communicating remotely—with video on—which has long been known to be more mentally taxing. We see another person, and so we have the experience of presence, yet we lack all the body language, all the signals we are used to processing unconsciously. Our brain has to make an extra effort to compensate for all those aspects of communication we lack, and that’s tiring.

One solid research finding in psychology is that any kind dissonance—any kind of experience in which we have one thought and its opposite, one feeling and its opposite, one experience and its opposite at the same time—tends to be consuming. Our brains dislike ambivalence. With Zoom, we both have too much and too little. We have too much of the illusion of presence and too little of the information that comes with physical presence.

We expend energy when we are trying to be present, attentive, attuned, and compassionate with another person. That’s always demanding. But when we are in the physical presence of another person, their response, even if it is subtle, is often reenergizing. We spend energy, and we get energy back. Now, when we’re on video, we spend the same energy, but we don’t seem to get quite the same return. And that can be draining.

Another reason we find Zoom calls draining is because often our own video is on, and we can’t stop looking at it. It makes us hyperaware of how we’re coming across. “Is that what I really look like?” The look of my neck. “Do I move my head like that all the time?” That’s a layer of self-consciousness that we don’t have when we’re in a conversation face-to-face.

Then there are the transitions—we’re often doing calls one after the other. We have no space between one encounter and another, and we get the same exhaustion that we would get if we had six or seven meetings back-to-back without a break. Often we’re not ever getting up from a chair. We’re in physical conditions that tend to be pretty draining. Just before this all happened, we were starting to learn how important it was to use a standing desk, to have walking meetings, to make sure that your body is not just stuck to a chair in front of a screen at work. And now we don’t just do it when we’re in front of a Word document or a spreadsheet. We stare at screens without moving for work and for a lot of our socializing. That affects our physical balance as well as our psychological balance.

How does the context of a pandemic contribute to all those factors?

We are not just exhausted from Zoom calls or other video calls. We’re exhausted from Zoom calls now, because those calls have become the only outlet for most of our relationships.

In the past, I had lots of video calls that I didn’t find exhausting. I found them energizing, because I knew it was an opportunity to see people I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. But now, especially during the confinement, many of us are doing a lot of video calls because it is the only way we have of seeing people that we are forcedly separated from. Those calls don’t feel like an opportunity so much as they feel like a bit of a loss.

That exhaustion is not the exhaustion of a video communication. It’s the exhaustion of grief. Maybe grief with a small “g,” but we know from research that loss is something we register in our body. It’s not a cognitive experience; it’s not even just an emotional experience. It’s a physical experience. And the last couple of months, we’ve been reminded of loss again and again and again in major ways, yes, but also in small ways. Every time we turn on the video and see the colleague who we would love to have a coffee with, or we see the man or woman we’ve started to date and we’re not really sure when we’re going to see them again. We’re holding on and losing them at once—that is exhausting. The video reminds us of them in a language that the phone or writing a letter doesn’t. Because in those mediums in which we don’t have video, the absence cannot be denied. It’s clear you’re not physically with the other person. But on video you can deny the absence. So it’s harder to process it.

In the last couple of months, we’ve had to deal with a lot of distance, with a lot of remoteness, with a lot of separation. When you’re on video, you can deny that, and it accumulates. Denial takes a lot of energy; it is exhausting. It’s always harder for humans to process, to deal with, to come to terms with that which we can deny.

In short, part of our exhaustion is the cognitive overload that we know, from research, videoconferencing brings. And some of it is the emotional burden of loss, which we haven’t yet been able to process quite fully. We can be forgiven for being a bit tired, I think.

What is the effect of having social gatherings on Zoom, in addition to work meetings?

It’s what’s called context collapse. Most of us don’t just have relationships; we also have spaces for those relationships. And we have selves we bring to those relationships in those spaces. Most of us, for example, we see our colleagues at work in the office. We see our parents in another place. We see our lovers in yet another place. We see our friends maybe in a different set of places.

Different places evoke different selves. Now the same screen is for the date, the catch-up with the parents, and the fitness class. So many of our relationships have lost the spaces in which they unfold. And the kind of self that a videoconference space evokes is sort of a reduced and caricaturized version of who we are in those different relationships.

In addition, videoconferencing is not new. It’s not like it came about two months ago. But many of us have been using videoconferencing for work, mostly, for the last ten years. So now it’s as if we have all these other relationships in the office. Our offices have shrunk to a screen and have become so much more crowded. And again, there are no transitions.

Are there certain kinds of meetings on Zoom that aren’t so draining?

There are certainly some video calls that aren’t. And they have to do with relationships in which the closeness, the intimacy, is mediated by a project. So, you know, I can be very close with some colleagues, but we have a task to do together—something that we’re excited about. In many cases, the sense that we can continue to work on that project is a relief and a joy. It makes us feel like we’re not defeated by this, we are not pulled apart.

But for all those relationships in which the intimacy is more mediated by the body, in which the relationship itself is the source of meaning, of pleasure, of joy (like romantic relationships and friendships), when you meet in this way, it’s a little depriving. Those are the most exhausting. The ones where you can reach but you can’t quite touch.

A friend was telling me recently that she had a flurry of videoconferences to “stay connected” with various groups of people she cared about, and slowly all those video calls had gone silent. They were too draining and depressing.

Why are they sometimes so awkward?

Sometimes in relationships, not just in intimate relations but also in moderately close relationships, like those we have at work, there are moments of silence where you’re thinking or you’re giving the other person space to talk. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that silence is more awkward in this video medium, unless you have a really good contract that silence is okay. That you don’t have to fill the space. Sometimes, if they’re silent, you think, Oh, did you freeze? Are you still there?

I find it fascinating, psychologically, to consider some of the phrases that we’ve become accustomed to: “You have frozen” and “Are you still there?” They give you a sense that the connection is so fragile—and that is anxiety-provoking, to be in a fragile relationship. It’s a tough human experience to be in a fragile relationship in which we are not quite sure whether we are held or whether we can hold. It’s more distressing than we even realize.

To be in a medium, or more precisely, in a relationship, in which we can disconnect so quickly, so easily—I think it takes more adjustment than we give ourselves credit for.

We never really get used to being in fragile relationships. You cope with it; you adjust to it. But it shrinks you a little bit. It leaves you on edge. I find it interesting that now people are using this term “Zoom fatigue.” Which I am not sure they realize is a veiled reference to combat fatigue, the old-fashioned term psychiatrists used to describe what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, I wouldn’t make—at all—an equivalence between people who have suffered the shock of combat and people who are in a Zoom meeting. But there’s something revealing in that association. It’s not quite a source of trauma, maybe. But it is a source of stress, to be reminded of the tenuousness and the fragility of relationships by the fact that we are together—and then suddenly, we are not.

What can we do about it?

Be thoughtful about what needs to be a Zoom meeting and what doesn’t.
First of all, ask yourself: Do we have to see one another? Someone made the joke—and I completely endorse it—that the meetings that could have become an email have become the Zoom calls that could have been an email. In both cases, the driver of creating these useless meetings is anxiety. Zoom work is the new face work.

So again, ask yourself, why are you having this video call? Are you having this meeting because you want to prove that you’re a good colleague, a good manager, a good friend? Or are you calling this meeting because we really need to see one another? Make it matter.

Choose whom you invite with care.
Second: Do we really need twenty people on this call? It’s one thing to have a call where there are two or three of us—we’re either at work and it’s the quickest thing to do, or we’re with friends and we’ve decided it’s time to drink and catch up. It’s another thing to say, we’re all at home, so it’s a great opportunity to “jump on a Zoom call” with everyone from seventh grade that we can find on Facebook.

Don’t waste people’s time.
Make sure when you organize that you are deliberate. That’s the kind of thinking you should apply to all meetings, really: Why are we meeting? How long are we meeting for? Who is in that meeting, and why are they there? What do we need to do to prepare so that it feels we are doing something purposeful? Because it’s already a soul-killer to do something meaningless. Often at work we have lots of meaningless meetings, but the saving grace is we are together, and so we’re building social capital. But if a meeting is meaningless and we don’t even have that benefit, it becomes a massive drain.

Generally, because video calls work so well for a purposeful intimacy—when we need to do something together—the clearer the task is, the easier and more productive it will be.

Take care of your body (and brain).
Don’t schedule yourself back-to-back. This seems too simple, but it needs saying. Make sure you’re drinking enough water. That you’re moving. Make sure you’re not working eight to ten hours a day with just very short breaks. Make sure you reconnect with your body, with your physical presence. It can feel depersonalizing to be online all the time.

Consider the humble telephone.
If you really miss someone, give them a good old-fashioned phone call. Write them a letter. Because it’s so rare these days, a letter registers as a gesture of attention, of affection, and of intimacy in a way that jumping on Zoom or Skype or Hangouts is never going to register.

Gianpiero Petriglieri, MD, is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD in France. He directs the Management Acceleration Programme, the school’s flagship executive education program for emerging leaders, and he is the academic director of the INSEAD Initiative for Learning Innovation and Teaching Excellence. A medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, Petriglieri’s research focus on the development of leaders and the meaning of work.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.