One day, after three back-to-back-to-back telehealth sessions, Laura emerged from her office, and as her eyes adjusted to the light (She has to keep her office dim so that her clients can see her more clearly on screen) she looked at me and said.
“I feel like a mole!”
Of course, I had to immediately pull up Google images of the teeny tiny, underground dwelling mammals so that we could have a good laugh, but as with most hilarious observations, the humor came from the truth of it.
Early on in or journey with telehealth, Katy and Laura were noticing with some surprise how tired they felt at the end of the day. They were dealing with eye dryness and soreness as well as headaches. They were just exhausted overall. We jokingly asked how it could be that tiring to sit in a chair all day.
It was easy in those early days to chalk it all up to, well, to life in the early days of the coronavirus, but as the months went by and we were able to resume in-office appointments, the number of virtual sessions decreased, but the symptoms didn’t seem to be getting better.
Despite it being the buzziest of buzz-terms, Zoom fatigue is real. As the world shifted, seemingly overnight from actual to virtual, our brains are trying to catch up. We now have to work intentionally to absorb information that we used to be able to take in almost involuntarily. We have to discern non-verbal cues as we ourselves are emoting with more effort so that others can more easily read us. Surprisingly, the biggest contributing factor in Zoom fatigue comes from the audio issues and lapses that happen during meetings.
Every part of our brain is wired to excel during in-person interactions. Even a sound delay of a millisecond has been found to negatively affect our interpersonal perceptions, even without technical issues. – Jana Lee, MD – 2020
There are also secondary issues that come along with having a majority of our work interactions take place online. There’s the fear of being interrupted during meetings by family members who are also home, the stress caused by seeing our own faces on the screen (It’s a real issue, give it a Goog.) and trying to find the best angles and adequate lighting (Or darkness, in some cases) are significant challenges when you’re one-on-one in a session. In the case of dealing with multiple people, which is typical for most people working from home, your brain has to work even harder.
Interpreting body language and facial expressions from many people through a screen (Most of which are not making direct eye contact because of where their cameras are) means that you are unable to fully concentrate on what is going on during the meeting. This is called continuous partial attention, and it is as real as Zoom fatigue.
Since you probably have fatigue from hearing about Zoom fatigue, and because we are all about SOLUTIONS at Anxiety Resource Center, we wanted to provide you with some ways to keep the fatigue at bay.
First of all, don’t be afraid to ask “Can this meeting be an email?” All jokes aside, if you know that a particular meeting is going to be document or PowerPoint heavy, ask in advance if the information can be sent as an email with a follow-up meeting if necessary. This will make it easier to take in and retain the information provided and will prevent those unnecessary, time-wasting questions that pop up when the material is presented in real-time, sight unseen.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask if the meeting can take place over the phone. It sounds archaic to say in 2020, but taking a meeting by phone is actually better for your productivity, and in avoiding fatigue. You won’t have to work to read non-verbal cues which will help you to focus, and you can get up and move around versus sitting, eyes fixed on a screen for hours at a time.
Schedule non-negotiable “me time” throughout the day. I have a friend who, at the beginning of COVID, was sitting through 9-10 hours of meetings a day as her large corporation transitioned hundreds of employees to remote work, but when the number of meetings didn’t die down as the months wore on, she felt the strain. Now she preemptively blocks out chunks of time where there are no meetings scheduled to use however she sees fit. Whether she uses that time to walk her dog, watch an episode of her favorite TV show, or have lunch with her husband, she guards that time fiercely and has noticed that it has helped her be more productive overall and has done wonders for her stress and anxiety.
If you can’t schedule chunks of time in your day for breaks, try to get at least ten minutes between meetings to get up and move. There are days here in the office where I will see Katy or Laura when we first start the day and then won’t see them again until it’s nearly lunchtime. With all of us in our separate silos, it’s easy to sit at our desks that entire time, only getting up to use the bathroom. I try to get up hourly to move. It helps that I have to sterilize the office regularly since that gives me a reason to get up from behind my desk, but it gets too easy to stay sedate. I notice a big difference in my mood and productivity on the days when I make a concerted effort to get up and away from my computer (and phone) versus the days when I do not.
The best advice is the simplest, give yourself grace. If you are struggling to concentrate, if you feel exhausted at the end of the day, or anxious or irritable, it’s okay! We are social creatures who thrive on connection. Even missing those five minutes a day when you and a coworker would talk about Netflix documentaries as you were getting coffee affects you. We have heard ad nauseam that all of this is unprecedented, but it is true. We are better together, in person, because that’s how we were created to survive. Struggling with working and living virtually isn’t just acceptable, it’s natural. As it looks like this way of life will be around for a while, we all need to find ways to adapt to it that benefit us individually for the sake of our physical, emotional, and mental health.
Our lives changed in an instant. We are still reeling over what these changes have meant while not really having the opportunity to fully acknowledge, and yes, mourn, the end of our former lives as we knew them. Even if your professional transition was blessedly smooth, like it was for us, there are still challenges that come with adapting. It is a process, it can be messy and difficult and fantastic and enriching, and frustrating, but necessary.
If you are struggling with these changes and your ability to cope, do not hesitate to reach out and ask for help. It can be as simple as talking to your boss about adjustments you need to make to your workload, utilizing your company’s EAP program, or setting up an appointment with a mental health professional. We are all finding our way through this and it is NOT a straight path. It’s perfectly okay to ask for someone to hold your hand for part of the way.