As a physiotherapist, Matthew Laing is seeing first-hand the consequences for many people who have been working from home for nearly a full year because of the pandemic.
He says he frequently hears the same complaints from clients: neck, back and shoulder pain that bothers them throughout the day because they’re stuck and not moving.
“I’ve got clients who just don’t move for eight hours a day,” said Laing, who is based in Toronto. “We’re human beings, we’re not meant to be in a sedentary position, not moving at all.”
Back in March 2020, when many companies directed most of their staff to leave the office and telecommute in an effort to slow the spread of a scary new coronavirus, the experience of working from home felt novel, perhaps even exciting for some workers.
At the very least, it was considered a blessing to have the option, particularly as workers in other sectors, such as health-care workers and grocery store staff, didn’t have the same choice, and many other workers were laid off because of the pandemic’s economic toll.
But working from makeshift setups with non-ergonomic chairs and unorthodox workspaces has caused its share of physical strain. And collaborating with colleagues remotely for so long has only worsened a COVID 19-era ailment of another kind: Zoom fatigue.
WATCH | Zoom fatigue is taking its toll:
“The novelty has worn off,” said Peter Flaschner, a director of the marketing firm Klick Health, who started working from his Toronto living room and kitchen a year ago.
He’s since turned a room upstairs into a temporary office. “We’ve become quite adept at this,” he said, referring to collaborating with colleagues remotely.
A year ago, few would have foreseen how widespread videoconferencing would become. Trials are held online, world leaders attend international summits virtually, and even Queen Elizabeth makes appearances via a webcam at Windsor Castle.
Downloads of the pandemic’s hottest video chat software, Zoom, exploded. The company said last spring 300 million daily participants were meeting on the platform. This past week, it reported total revenue of $882.5 million US, up a whopping 369 per cent year-over-year for the quarter ending Jan. 31.
But with that added usage came increased complaints of Zoom fatigue, the term given to the unique brand of mental exhaustion caused by hours of videoconferencing on any app, including Microsoft’s Skype and Teams, Cisco Webex and Google Meet.
“There’s a reason why TED talks are 18 minutes,” said Anthony Bonato, a Ryerson University mathematics professor, referring to the popular series of online lectures. “Zoom fatigue is real.”
Researchers at Stanford University recently considered what makes videoconferencing so tiring. They pointed to four factors:
- The unnaturally prolonged simulation of close-up eye contact.
- The mental strain of watching other attendees for visual cues.
- A reduction in mobility from staying in the same spot.
- Constantly seeing yourself in real time.
Their work was published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior. Stanford communication professor Jeremy Bailenson points out in the article, “The arguments are based on academic theory and research, but also have yet to be directly tested in the context of Zoom, and require future experimentation to confirm.”
Still, “this is a huge transformation to the way we normally talk,” fellow Stanford communication professor Jeff Hancock told CBC News over Zoom from his home in Palo Alto, Calif. “It’s like walking around with a mirror hanging around in front of us.”
He said Zoom fatigue is bound to affect people of different genders and races to varying degrees, particularly when it comes to the way individuals pay attention to — and perceive — their own image, what’s known as self-focused attention.
“There’s a lot of work in psychology that shows people that have higher levels of self-focused attention are more likely to feel anxious or even more likely to get depressed,” said Hancock, a B.C. native. “And we find the same kind of thing here [with Zoom fatigue].”
What to do about it
Bailenson recommends turning off “self-view” mode as much as possible, as well as reducing the size of the videoconference window so it doesn’t take up the entire screen. He hopes platforms such as Zoom will change default settings so the user isn’t automatically faced with their own image any time they enter a video meeting, unless that’s what they choose.
As for the aches and pains, Laing, the physiotherapist, recommends doing small exercises between meetings to break up the time spent in front of the computer screen.
“It’s not about changing what they’re doing during those meetings … instead, it’s actually to get them to maximize the time between meetings,” he said.
Laing recommends at-home workers get up — even for 30 seconds at a time — to do a few squats or stretches. Even going up and down stairs can help break the monotony and physical inertia.
“Just pacing around between meetings … can go a long way,” he said.
Others have a longer-term solution. While vaccines start to help fight the spread of COVID-19, the eventual return of face-to-face meetings may prove to be the only cure for Zoom fatigue.
“If we could do hybrid [meetings], that would be just great, if it means more people are able to participate,” said Dipika Damerla, a municipal councillor in Mississauga, Ont. A hybrid meeting would have a mix of virtual and in-person attendance, once public measures allow for it.
The city, like many others, has been holding public meetings via videoconference.
And it hasn’t always gone according to plan.
A presenter at a recent council meeting asked for her presentation to be delayed.
“What issues are you having?” staff asked.
“My Powerpoint presentation isn’t opening,” the presenter replied, reflecting a recurring pandemic-era scenario.
Damerla herself shared a habit to which many videoconference participants can relate, even a year into the pandemic.
“I still start to speak with the mute button on.”
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