Virtual Meetings Have Become Fatiguing for Remote Workers

What are the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on video conference meetings? In the first peer-reviewed article published in the Technology, Mind and Behavior journal, Jeremy Bailenson, professor at Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, identified four consequences of prolonged video chats: 1) excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense; 2) seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing; 3) video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility; and 4) the cognitive load is much higher in video chats.

Just as companies are warming up to the idea of remote work, the challenge now is how to sustain it when this new study on video chats paints a dire picture. One study says 30% cancel virtual meetings, with 69% of them calling it video fatigue. For this reason, global mobility specialists will need to know their companies and assignees can work the kinks out.

Reasons and solutions to video chat fatigue

The first reason virtual chats are not good: the size of faces on screens and the amount of eye contact workers engage in is unnatural. On video calls, everyone is looking at everyone. “When everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.” 

If a computer monitor is big, faces can also appear too large. Our brains see it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. Bailenson calls it being in a hyper-aroused state.

As a solution, Bailenson recommends taking the virtual call out of the full-screen option and shrinking the size of the window in  the monitor to minimize the size of the face. An external keyboard is suggested to create personal space between the speaker and the screen.

The second reason has to do with how people can see themselves in the chat. Bailenson cited studies that point to how people can be critical of themselves when they see a reflection of themselves. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful.”

He recommended that the video be switched to who is talking. If there’s no option, users should use the “hide self-view” button once their face comes up on the video call. One takes away the mirror effect in this scenario.

The third reason is about how movement in virtual calls is limited in an unnatural way. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but growing research reportedly states that when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively. 

Bailenson recommends having a separate keyboard for distancing and perhaps even a camera wide enough for anyone to see the speaker pace around the room while talking.

The last reason has to do with the dilemma of cognitive load being higher in video chat. In 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 chat, people have to work harder to send and receive signals.

In effect, Bailenson said, humans have taken one of the most natural things in the world — an in-person conversation – and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought: “You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the center of the video. If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”

Gestures could also reportedly mean different things in a video meeting. A sidelong glance to someone during an in-person meeting means something very different than a person on a video chat grid looking off-screen to their child who just walked into their home office.

As a solution, an “audio only” break is advised for those who have long meetings. “This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen,” Bailenson said, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”

A scale to measure fatigue

Bailenson – along with Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab; Géraldine Fauville, former postdoctoral researcher at the VHIL; Mufan Luo; graduate student at Stanford; and Anna Queiroz, postdoc at VHIL – have devised the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale, or ZEF Scale, to help measure how much fatigue people are experiencing in the workplace from videoconferencing.

The scale advances research on how to measure fatigue from interpersonal technology, as well as what causes the fatigue.

The scale, a 15-item questionnaire, has reportedly been tested now across five separate studies over the past year with over 500 participants. It asks questions about a person’s general fatigue, physical fatigue, social fatigue, emotional fatigue and motivational fatigue. 

Some sample questions include:

  • How exhausted do you feel after videoconferencing?
  • How irritated do your eyes feel after videoconferencing?
  • How much do you tend to avoid social situations after videoconferencing?
  • How emotionally drained do you feel after videoconferencing?
  • How often do you feel too tired to do other things after videoconferencing?

For those interested in knowing if they have video chat fatigue, here’s the survey. And for those who want to test their fatigue, some companies have their own method. recommends people use its software by downloading it via the Chrome extension.