The Real Culprit Behind Zoom Fatigue

The underlying problem behind feeling “Zoomed out” is actually camera fatigue, a new study indicates.

The manager starts the videoconference and asks everyone to turn on their webcams. One by one, and for the next two hours, people stare at each other and themselves. While it’s a seemingly harmless scenario, a new study suggests otherwise.

According to research from the University of Arizona, the pandemic phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue” might not be caused by continuous meetings as much as being on camera so much. The effect, the study found, appears to be worse on women and new employees. “There are unintended consequences if we’ve got too much cognitive load on us,” says Miriam Nelson, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

The main difference between presenting yourself at meetings in person versus on camera is being able to look at yourself. “It’s the ‘mirror effect,’ and that’s the part that causes fatigue,” says Nelson. “It drains us to see ourselves.” The feeling also comes from being boxed into one zone on the video call.

The study followed 103 participants and noted more than 1,400 observations of reactions both with cameras on and off. Solely focusing on the screen and not being able to move or look around your environment is exhausting, says Ilene Gochman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who frequently engaged in videoconferences even pre-pandemic. “On Zoom meetings, there’s no rest for your eyes, with back-to-back hours of staring at the same, narrow object—your screen. It’s tiring,” she says. Additionally, body language cues below the shoulder level don’t appear on webcam, so one must completely rely on facial expressions alone, which also causes weariness, she says.

Women and new employees feel more drained by continuously being on camera because of heightened self-presentation costs, experts say. “For women it’s about the pressure of demonstrating competence,” says Nelson. In the case of new employees, they’re trying to climb up the learning curve quickly, which can be difficult, especially in a remote environment. “You’re already taking in so much information, it’s draining when you’re acclimating to meetings, people, and the way things are done,” she says.

Business leaders can deal with this by acknowledging camera fatigue as a legitimate issue and providing guidance on the resulting problems, says Nelson. Perhaps managers can modify how meetings are conducted. For instance, some companies have policies such as “Zoom-free Fridays” to give employees a break from constant meetings. “This is an opportunity to really recognize that we’re in a different situation, shift how meetings are conducted, and reflect on what makes them effective,” Nelson says.

As for workers on such calls, experts say a solution to combating the mirror effect is to hide self-view in your Zoom camera settings. It’s unnatural to be staring at yourself for so long, so knowing that you can’t see yourself can help reduce the fatigue, Nelson says. At the same time, it doesn’t hurt engagement because others can still see you.