Following the pandemic, videoconferencing has become a daily part of life for many people. Videoconferencing has allowed people to work from home more effectively, keep in touch with friends and family, and “Zoom in” to events they might have otherwise missed entirely.

In many ways it’s been a real boon. But as videoconferencing has increased, so too have complaints about what’s being called “Zoom fatigue” or “screen fatigue.” Screen fatigue is the feeling of mental exhaustion many people report after spending significant amounts of time in videoconferences.

Understanding screen fatigue has important implications for coaching, as many coaches have switched to online formats for at least some of their work. In this piece we’ll take a look at what causes screen fatigue, and in a future piece we’ll take a look at steps coaches can take to minimize screen fatigue for themselves and their clients.

Marlynn Wei, a medical doctor and lawyer, writing for Psychology Today offers a great overview of two of the causes of screen fatigue, particularly with regard to videoconferencing.

She points out that videoconferencing is not actually perfectly synchronous, due to the technological limitations of even very advanced videoconferencing software, and that this lack of true synchronicity leads to “overworking of the brain to try to synchronize communication— your brain ends up working overtime to read the other person’s expressions and behavior.”

Wei also points out that it is more difficult to read people’s expressions and body language via videoconference, and this can lead people’s brains to have to work harder to try to fill in those gaps.

Vignesh Ramachandran recently reported in Stanford News on a study by Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), who conducted the first peer-reviewed article on Zoom fatigue. Ramachandran reports Bailenson focused on four main causes of Zoom fatigue:

  1. Videoconferencing involves more close, direct eye contact than most in-person communication. This can be intense and ultimately tiring for people.
  2. Seeing an image of yourself constantly during videoconferencing can be tiring. Bailenson points out, “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that.”
  3. Videoconferences limit people’s ability to move during conversation. Compared to phone conversations, where people are free to move from room to room, pace, or do pretty much whatever they like with regard to movement, videoconferencing roots people to a single spot. This is even true to an extent when comparing videoconferencing to in-person conversations. In-person conversations can be held while walking, for example. And even in more static in-person conversations, there is typically more freedom to move than comes with being in front of a camera and needing to speak into a microphone.
  4. The differences between videoconferencing and face-to-face communication mean videoconferencing takes more mental work. As Ramachandran reports, “Bailenson notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals.”

Widespread screen fatigue due to frequent videoconferencing is a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s interesting to see this early research into it. Hopefully as time goes on more will be learned about the causes of screen fatigue and how to minimize it. In our next piece we will take a look at what experts and current research already have to say about the best ways to minimize and prevent screen fatigue, as well as the specific implications of all this for coaching.