One of Covid’s many unprecedented effects has been to thrust workers into the camera’s focus. We’ve found ourselves on video calls, sometimes for hours a day, watching—and being watched—during virtual meetings, conferences and team happy hours.
Unflattering angles and awkward interruptions have ensued. So, too, has ‘Zoom fatigue’, which entered the lexicon over the past year to describe a uniquely debilitating sense of exhaustion and anxiety (you know it when you feel it).
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, was quick to diagnose some of the problems last April in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He described video calls as unnatural, with a forced gaze that is draining and large faces on screen that can trigger our evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ reflex.
“Behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, co-workers and even strangers,” Bailenson wrote.
To measure this impact more precisely, Bailenson created a Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue (ZEF) scale along with researchers Géraldine Fauville and Jeffery Hancock. Through survey questions that you can take yourself, ZEF tracks five types of fatigue associated with video calls: general tiredness, social, emotional, visual strain and motivational.
The results of the latest survey, completed by 10,591 participants, show that women of all ages scored higher on all five types of fatigue. Nearly 14 percent of women report feeling “very” to “extremely” fatigued after video conference calls, compared to only 5.5 percent of men. Women also have longer meetings with shorter breaks and report feeling physically trapped by video calls more than men do.
WHAT’S DRIVING THE ZOOM FATIGUE GENDER GAP?
Researchers found that the biggest contributing factor to women’s Zoom fatigue was the increase in “self-focused attention” brought on by the self-view window display. This finding is in sync with existing research that shows women are more likely to self-focus than men when they are in the presence of a mirror. Prolonged self-focus can produce negative emotions, or what the researchers call “mirror anxiety,” as Hancock explained in a Stanford news story about the results.
Women also report being more distracted by nonverbal cues than men while on Zoom—such as exaggerated body language or emoji messages sent during a call—which can add to the cognitive load. The greater the load you have to process, the more debilitated or overwhelmed you can feel. The emotional load of, say, trying to be courteous to coworkers on screen also takes a toll.
“Several researchers have already pointed at the disproportionate negative impact of Covid on women such as greater economic hardships, heavier childcare load than men and also increased struggles with body image,” write the study authors. “In this way, our findings add to the body of knowledge showing the disproportionate negative impact of the Covid pandemic on women.”