Zoom fatigue is the newly coined term for burning out from being stuck in video calls all day. It’s become especially common these days as more and more of our work lives have become remote. Because the switch to remote was so sudden for a lot of companies due to the covid pandemic, a lot of companies maintained the same processes and ways of working they had before and simply pushed them into the remote space. In some ways, the switch to remote created an even greater reliance on meetings than before because more managers found themselves struggling to maintain the same overview of what their direct reports were working on than they did before. Team (or even company) events that used to be done in-person are now done exclusively remotely. Conferences that also used to be held in person have made the switch also.
While this is a phenomenon that now affects more people and affects them in deeper ways, it isn’t completely new. There were always companies that worked remotely and relied heavily on a meetings culture. The general fatigue caused by consistent back-to-back meetings is very well-known to a lot of people. There is, however, a difference when those meetings are held exclusively online. The reasons for it aren’t as well-understood or well-researched as they will be in the coming years but some things are more draining about Zoom than face-to-face meetings.
Zoom meetings (that is, video calls) are different in that you can’t read body language in the same way and you spend a lot of time over-compensating for that. Maybe your intonation gets a little more exaggerated, the way that it would if you were on stage, or you focus a little harder on the ground dynamic and interactions because it’s much more difficult to avoid interrupting people. Casual conversation and small talk feel more forced and harder to get through. Awkward pauses where no one knows what to say feel even more awkward. It definitely calls for a different way of communicating and that’s more mentally taxing because most of us are used to in-person interaction a lot more.
The Real Solution to Zoom Fatigue
The best solution to Zoom fatigue is shaking up your methods of communication across your company and making them more suitable for remote work. That means investing in ways that let people report to you without necessarily having to sit in a meeting for it. It means looking at every video call you set up and really asking yourself if it’s necessary. Could you achieve the same outcome by having shared project management tools, that you work to keep updated? You can’t get rid of all meetings and that’s fine. Some aspects of work will always be more efficient or more fun with synchronous communication.
Being successful at working remotely means leveraging the unique aspects of remote work that are actually helpful for people. You can’t take advantage of the freedom it offers you if your environment is so heavily regimented. For example, if you’re more productive at certain times of day, it’s much more useful to structure your day following those rhythms so that you can do different types of work depending on your current productivity levels. Sitting in Zoom meetings all day, every day doesn’t help you do that. Investing in asynchronous communication and reducing the need for video meetings, to begin with, will always be the best, long-term solution.
That said, maybe that isn’t a realistic solution for you right now because of your current circumstances. As an example, if you’re onboarding people remotely you should invest heavily in video calls because that will help you build relationships in a way that just isn’t the same in pure text or asynchronous communication. It’s incredibly hard for someone to feel like an integrated member of the team and like they have the opportunity to ask questions continuously if you don’t dedicate that time. So you might have some weeks or months that will just always include a ton of time in Zoom meetings and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. These are some of the ways you can manage that.
Recognising the Symptoms
The first step in dealing with any problem is recognising it as soon as you can. I’ve worked remotely for long enough now that I can usually tell when I’ll have a hard week well before it happens. Zoom fatigue for me is usually a result of onboarding new employees because I’ve found no way to reduce the need for those meetings in the first few weeks. Otherwise, it’s usually clustered around the end of a quarter and the beginning of the next quarter. This is when we wrap up our goals, evaluate how they went, and write the upcoming ones, which will always involve a set of meetings with my team, my boss, and others around the company who might have been involved. Being able to recognise this in advance means you can already try to plan in some ways of reducing its impact before you get there.
If you can’t recognise it before it happens, you can usually tell quite quickly when you’re there. Zoom fatigue can be characterised by any of the following signs:
- Plain and simple exhaustion.
- Feeling burnt out and worn down.
- Struggling to focus during the meetings themselves.
- Struggling to focus after meetings because you feel harried or rushed like you’re getting pulled in too many directions.
- Losing your ability to interact with your full presence and attention or feeling like you have to force yourself to speak up during those meetings.
- Tiredness of your eyes or tension headaches.
For me, I barely notice the symptoms when I’m actually in a meeting. Depending on how engaging the meeting is, I tend to have an easy time ignoring my tiredness and focusing on the meeting itself, which works as a good distraction. It really sets in afterwards, when I notice the number of Slack pings I have, when I find myself staring at my screen and struggling to make progress, or when I turn off my computer at the end of the day and just want to close my eyes for an hour.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that these symptoms will build up and get worse over time. If you start feeling like this and don’t see an end in sight, that’s a red flag that you should try to change something about your environment. If you do see an end in sight but it’s still a long way away, then it’s still worth trying to do something to manage those symptoms, for as long as they last.
Reducing Their Impact
These techniques assume that your fatigue is a short-term problem. Short-term problems can often be solved by looking for ways to keep them under control while they’re happening and then waiting for them to blow over. If it’s a long-term problem then these might help a little bit but they won’t help you tackle the core issue. So keep that in mind if you decide to implement any of these. They are very useful when it comes to having a healthier work-life balance in general but lifestyle changes need to be approached with a slightly different mentality to be ultimately successful.
This is by the far the most underrated way to manage not only Zoom fatigue but any other source of stress in your life. Spending time in nature, getting as far away from your everyday routine, breathing in the fresh air: all of these are incredibly simple and incredibly powerful ways to reduce your stress levels across the board. I find it extremely effective for Zoom fatigue in particular because it forces you to disengage mentally from talking to people. There’s something about spending time outside that feels like a balm on very raw nerves after spending a longer period of time over-compensating in your tone of voice and body language over a video camera.
To make this very effective, try to go outside during your workday. Going for a walk during your lunch break is the best way to lessen the impact of back-to-back meetings, even if it’s only for ten minutes or so. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, this is usually the first thing I do after I finish working. It isn’t about spending a lot of time outside but rather completely changing your environment and letting your eyes get used to looking at natural light and distances, more than anything else.
Exercising here isn’t about exhausting yourself even more. Some people might find high-intensity exercise energising after a hard workday but most people will find that piling on physical exhaustion on top of mental exhaustion isn’t the best solution. Movement is incredibly soothing for your body though and will make you feel better. Look for activities that you can do lightly, with focus and concentration and spend that time exploring your body and different aspects of a movement. I like doing simple stretches or light yoga. On a good day, this might encourage you to do something with a little higher intensity but it’s primarily about grounding yourself in your physical space. That’s a great way to give your brain time to recover from your workday.
Non-screen hobbies outside of work
This one isn’t quite as effective as going outside, in my experience, but it still works pretty well on those rainy days where the thought of going outdoors makes you miserable. I’ve found it best to have a creative outlet of some kind, where you try to make something with your hands. A lot of people will crash on the couch after an intense day at work and watch Netflix for the evening. This is quite relaxing and might be a good way to distract yourself if you find yourself constantly thinking about work. But it just doesn’t cut it if what’s tiring you out is screen time. Zoom, for me, is like screen time squared. Spending five hours straight in online video meetings is much more tiring than just spending five hours working on a computer. That’s why I find it so much easier on the eyes to do something I like.
Even reading a book doesn’t quite relax your eyes as much as lying down and listening to a podcast, doing some kind of household chore, or (the really fun part) making something cool. My personal hobby here is leathercrafting. Stitching a leather bag while listening to a podcast in the background has been the most relaxing way to unwind after those days for me. The fun thing about creative outlets is that they engage your brain in a completely different way, so they’re distracting, and you get the accomplishment of a finished product that you can hold in your hands afterwards.
Taking regular, short breaks throughout the day will definitely help, especially if you can pair it with either of the above. It’s easy to feel like you need to just power through and it’s easy to underestimate how much taking a break can help. Sometimes just having ten minutes in between meeting marathons where you don’t have to talk, engage with anyone, or look at a screen is already enough to let you recover just a little bit before you switch back on.
I’ve found meditating especially helpful at these times because it forces you to close your eyes and take deep breaths, which is a calming exercise by itself. In comparison to regular fatigue, Zoom fatigue specifically tires out my eyes like nothing else so taking a break where you close your eyes makes all the difference. It also helps you move away from that frantic feeling, when you’re struggling to get through a busy and intense day.
The breaks I’m thinking of here are rather stretches of 5-15 minutes, depending on how much time you have available. Even a couple of minutes where you consciously open your window and look outside might make enough of a difference for you to get through the day comfortably.
This one might be a bit hit and miss, depending on your personal preferences. I find it much better to have a cluster of four hours of meetings in one go rather than to have those four hours spread out across the entire day. This is because it takes long, uninterrupted hours to focus on more complex projects and give them the attention that they need. In a day with multiple, spread-out, shorter meetings, the most you can get done is replying to some emails in between or small, menial tasks. That generally makes Zoom fatigue worse for me because I end up feeling like the whole day was wasted.
This assumes that you’re able to prepare for those meetings comfortably in advance or that those meetings aren’t the type to require a ton of preparation. If that isn’t the case, spreading the meetings out and just focusing on having great, productive meetings might be a better solution for you. If you find having multiple hours of meetings in a row more draining, then this probably isn’t a good idea for you either. Think about how you respond to clusters like this before you decide to either try this or to drop it.
It might also conflict with the above point about taking breaks. If you find that when you start clustering you end up with a full seven hour block of back-to-back meetings, prioritise those opportunities where you can take breaks rather than focusing on pushing those meetings together.
The ultimate secret to breaking up an endless streak of meetings is to block out time in your calendar. If you’re so busy that you can assume gaps in your calendar will be filled up by your colleagues, consciously block out time for yourself to focus on other tasks. This generally prevents Zoom fatigue from even setting in because it forces you to limit the amount of time you spend in meetings. This is usually only successful if you actually enforce those blockers. If someone books a non-urgent meeting over them, you should ask to move that meeting.
Blockers are a great way to indicate for other people that you simply aren’t available for a video call. Events in your calendar tend to be respected in a way that empty space just isn’t, although this perhaps depends somewhat on your company culture. If you are in the lucky position where you can generally tell when you’ll have a hard week, you can already try to schedule a couple of these blockers as a commitment to yourself to limit your time in meetings.
This one’s last because it’s definitely the hardest to do. It’s a great life skill in a lot of ways. If you’re struggling with stress at work because you’re tackling a ridiculous workload, you can’t really avoid this. But with Zoom fatigue, I’ve found it harder to convince myself to do it. Meetings are part of the job, right? Sometimes saying no to a meeting means slowing down a project or blocking someone else who’s depending on you. That’s the worst type of feeling.
That said, this is a reminder to really think about whether you actually need to have that meeting or not. And if you do need to have it, do you need to have it right now? It’s very easy to default to a meeting in a lot of cases because they can feel more efficient. If you can avoid breaking your day up further with meetings by spending the time preparing feedback in a written form, checking in with someone asynchronously, or simply postponing an update until the week after, then this is the time to do that.
Zoom fatigue is at its most harmful when you let it build up for weeks on end and you don’t do anything else to balance that time out. In an ideal scenario, you’d have those meeting heavy periods for maybe a week or two weeks max in a row. After that, your brain just needs the time to recover and focus on other things. You can maybe build up your stamina slowly over time but what you really need is a toolkit that you fall back on, whenever you start feeling tired. Ignoring that tiredness is not a great long-term solution.
If you’ve found any other techniques that help you, feel free to share them! This is an area of remote work that’s getting more attention nowadays but managing it is a very individual process. It could be that what worked for me doesn’t help you at all, and what works for you helps a lot more people.