The real reason we’re so tired of Zoom calls

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters 

From my scheduled chats with friends and family to weekly Toastmasters meetings or Sunday morning crafting calls, my calendar now seems increasingly filled with Zoom appointments (and those are just the fun ones, not counting the Heart Sisters-related meetings with people I don’t even know, like researchers, students or media). I thought at first that my own Zoom fatigue* – yes, even chatting with those I know and love – was due to adjusting to the differences between video calls and in-person communication.

But then I read an intriguing essay by Dr. Evan Selinger called The Problem Isn’t Zoom Fatigue — It’s Mourning Life as We Knew It.     .        .

Dr. Selinger, a philosophy professor and co-author (with Brett Frischmann) of the book, Re-Engineering Humanity”, discusses both the advantages (celebrating birthdays, playing games, catching up with friends and family) and the disadvantages (sheer exhaustion) of communicating by telepresence during this surreal period of pandemic self-isolation.

But then he gets to the meat and potatoes of his message, arguing that Zoom burnout may be due to something we’re not even acknowledging, something he calls the “unspoken sadness” whenever we join a video call. He explains:

“Don’t get me wrong. A locked-down world without video calls would be significantly worse — more socially isolating and economically devastating. What makes the situation especially fraught is that we’ve accepted the wrong explanation of the problem.

“The issue isn’t just about technological mediation. Our ‘burnout’ is largely due to the depressing thoughts the pandemic brings to mind during every online conversation that substitutes for one we’d prefer to have in person.”

He then suggests that each video call to someone you wish you could see in person – but can’t – serves as a reminder of “a world that’s been shattered and can’t be revived.”

He also warns that blaming Zoom fatigue on surface issues (like sitting for a long time in the same position, adding more screen time to our hyper-screened lives, or the self-consciousness of being simultaneously the subject and object of attention to those tiny faces in gallery view) may be “a big mistake”. Instead, he offers this observation:

“A root cause of our collective tiredness is the painful awareness that life can’t go back to normal.”

The term “painful awareness” reminded me of this personal example: at my family birthday picnic last month, our five-year old granddaughter Everly Rose spent much of the picnic hiding under a blanket, refusing to look at or speak to any relatives except her parents. As her grandmother, I felt confused by this puzzling behaviour coming from our usually outgoing and charming little girl.

A few days later, in another attempt at a short outdoor visit with her, our same small family group met on her driveway early one evening. We could see Rosie at the living room window, but she refused to come out onto the front porch to say hello. Her Daddy tried to coax her out, but nothing worked. He went inside to find out why, then soon returned to tell us that she didn’t want to come out to see her family “because I can’t hug or kiss them” .

It seems that, just as Dr. Selinger observed that turning on a video chat can reinforce depressing thoughts that this pandemic brings to mind, to Rosie, simply seeing her family members close up seemed too painful a reminder of how pandemic precautions were affecting her. UPDATE: since then, she now seems to be warming up to the notion that she can feel sad about not being able to hug or kiss us, but still be allowed to talk to us from afar.

Meanwhile, other academics also share Dr. Selinger’s concerns when it comes to work-related video chats. Dr. Gianpiero Petriglieri, who teaches at the graduate business school INSEAD, believes that feeling forced to participate in video calls contributes to this fatigue:

“The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. Every time you see your colleagues online, it reminds you that we should really be in the workplace together. We’re all exhausted, both introverts and extroverts. We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar during this pandemic.”

The reader feedback on social media in response to Dr. Selinger’s essay was as interesting as his original essay. Here’s a small sampling of opinions on his theory of “mourning life as we knew it”:

“It’s the change. Any change can trigger the stress response in our mind and body and can bring to the surface unresolved issues that we kept in check through busi-ness. Add to this change the underlying feeling of risk to safety. A lot to process…”
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This puts into beautiful words exactly how I feel about Zoom. I want a real relationship with my ill mother in her nursing home in what might be her last year, not her reaching forward to kiss a screen. I want to hold her hand, stroke her hair, be with her.”
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This is especially true for teachers. It was great to see students at first, but once the reality set in that I would not see them in person as they move on to high school, the weekly meetings became more stressful for me.
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Video calls were a great tool before the pandemic. They were a convenient, easy, fun way to interact with people far away such as family, friends or work contacts. Then it was a choice. The difference now is that this is not a choice. It’s all we have.”
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Zoom reminds us we are not hugging the person we want to hug because we are looking at them on the screen.”
But not surprisingly, others online offered opinions that differed from Dr. Selinger’s:
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The Zoom video calls I have to do are never with people I want to see in person.”
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“As a deaf person, I have a slightly different perspective. Even with decades of TV in our lives, our eyes still work to discern the vision before us in 3-D. All of the video chats are 2-D and our eyes tire more quickly. The emotional context depends on whom you are talking to.
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“Video calls were exhausting way before COVID-19. It’s because someone’s watching you so there’s more of a performance element to the whole thing, a need to ‘be on’ that creates a constant stress. Plus you’re often stuck at the computer and making eye contact with nothing.”
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Not all of us feel that way. I prefer video conferencing. It relieves pressure for those of us who are introverts. Bonus: you can stop the video  and maintain audio. Best of both worlds for me.
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I am so glad that I can talk to family across the country using Zoom. I think we complain too much. This is our situation, we need to deal with it. We are so fortunate. Read up on the Black Plague if you have any doubts.”
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“Talking about ‘mourning’ is exaggerating. We mourn someone/something we lost, ultimately someone/something we will never got back. It’s final. This situation is temporary. It won’t last forever. Things will be back to normal one day, sooner or later. All pandemics end.”
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Please. Stay safe. . .
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*Zoom fatigue (or alternatively, Zoom burnout): unintended tiredness or anxiety associated with yet another video call
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Q: Are you doing more or fewer video chats these days, and why?
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NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  If you’re weary of video chats, try reading a book!  You can ask for mine, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease , at your favourite local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

.See also:

– Read other Heart Sisters articles about COVID-19 and heart patients
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19 thoughts on “The real reason we’re so tired of Zoom calls

  1. My husband has been working from home since mid-March, a bit before the pandemic thing really hit, because his boss was proactive when he saw things coming. Hubby has worked from home a lot but we reorganized our home office setup and now he is enjoying it a lot more. He has Zoom meetings every day. He does tech support for remittance processing software. His company’s product can actually help people work from home, a side benefit they didn’t even realize was there until now.

    I on the other hand work with people, specifically two developmentally disabled people, and my job (a whopping 6 hours a week) has shut down with everyone in quarantine right now.

    I recently had my first online meeting with my cardiologist, which grew into a nuclear stress test in the office and wearing a Holter twice, all to discover I am fine and we’ve agreed that my chest discomfort is due to anxiety and stress right now. Which I think is kind of a funny turnaround given that so many health care providers might try to write off a woman’s real heart problems as anxiety (and in fact the one time I called 911 the first thing the paramedic asked me was if I was worried about anything — LOL! It was a-fib).

    Since then I have had the opportunity to talk (via Zoom) to a tech person at my organization about doing online activities for the people involved in our agency (900 employees and who knows how many clients in 3 counties). I used to teach art so I agreed to try teaching a class. It was kind of a disaster, in part because I didn’t know the technology well enough to solve my own issues as the lesson went on. Art lessons over Zoom don’t work really well, especially when the only person to link in is a hyperactive young child who says he doesn’t want to do the drawing and your lesson is geared for junior high and up and involves LOOKING at things. But I’ve agreed to give it one more try and then if that doesn’t work I’m bowing out.

    So I’m not burned out from Zoom at all but it is hard to negotiate my life right now in so many other ways — having my two grown sons living with us again (one just moved back from grad school). Online church services through Facebook are just not cutting it for me and group texting is driving me nuts! Hardest of all is that my 80 yr-old mother-in-law has come back up north from FL and is taking up all my hubby’s time right now because she can’t figure out how to use a cell phone and needs a lot of help with chores. She is impossible to deal with and I am super stressed and depressed over having her back, probably more than everything else right now.

    So I’m hanging in there and coping with technology the best I can and soooo grateful that my hubby knows what to do with that because I sure don’t!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meghan, I had to laugh at your description of the art class – reminded me of the one and only video chat with my granddaughter Everly Rose (age 5) who kept bouncing up to run out of the room to chase her cat or check out a noise in the kitchen…. So not very satisfying!

      Sounds like you’ve had lots of changes lately that loom far larger than simple technology issues! More things to adjust and adapt to – as if you needed more…

      Take care, stay safe. ♥

      Like

  2. Carolyn,
    Check out this post
    We published what also happens in the brain on ZOOM.

    There are not just psychological issues with Zoom but neuro-biological implications.
    xxxx
    j

    There’s also the brain scramble that happens when we are watching our own face while interacting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Judy-Judith – such an interesting article; thanks for sharing it. “A combination of having prolonged eye contact and having someone’s enlarged face extremely close to you forces certain subconscious responses in humans….”

      Oh yes, and also watching our OWN face…. Weird! Brain scramble indeed (for a brain like mine that can’t take too much scrambling at the best of times!

      Stay safe… ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  3. People who use examples like the Black Plague or Spanish Flu to tell others to buck up are seriously callous about what people are going through right now.

    We live in a world of enormously different sensibilities, life expectencies and with much more demonstrative physical contact with one another, ie hugs and kisses. It is an insult to the thousands of young students and especially graduates who are missing what our society holds up as its rites of passage to say someone else had it worse and blow them off.

    In an era of long life we cherish and treasure the old ones even in nursing homes and hold a special consideration for the process of dying unprecedented in other eras. The mourning is real for nearly everyone. One grieves and mourns the loss of many things in life and this isolation and fear from the pandemic is not to be taken lightly.

    I appreciate your article but some of the naysayers really need to open a heart of compassion to others.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I disagree. It’s the opossite for me. I am able to see through Zoom chats how important it is to socialize during lockdown.

    In some I carry on business and there is still joking around. In another a friend in one group chat had to make the decision to put his dog down, we all gave him encouraging words and he didn’t feel alone. A week later we had the group chat again and we checked in on him and shared our stories of having to put down a loved one. The discussion evolved into how wonderful it is to share our lives with four legged creatures. How they are all not the same and some become so special in our lives never to be forgotten.

    It was very cathartic for him and the rest of us. All my chats we talk abouv a variety of things, share our screens to show a poem or a prayer, or a picture. It has been wonderful time.

    Sometimes advice from experts is “psychobabble.” However, others will take this to heart. This is what makes evident that each of us is so uniquely wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ree – I love that story about your friend’s dog, and how others on the video chat were able to offer support and comfort. Great example of socialization during lockdown – a unique opportunity that may never have been as effective without the miracle of video chat technology.

      I would never describe what Dr. Selinger or Dr. Petriglieri say as “psychobabble” just because you’ve had a different experience with your own Zoom meetings. Rather, their quotes offered a unique perspective that I’d never heard before – and they sure did make perfect sense to me. But I also knew that including a number of differing comments within this article would show objectively just how varied other people’s personal opinions can be – as you say, uniquely wonderful!

      Stay safe…. ♥

      Like

  5. As an introvert and an immunocompromised terminally ill cancer patient, I didn’t expect to be irritated or burnt out on what is often my preferred method of communication. And yet, I’ve been increasingly less motivated to get on any of the video calls. I wasn’t sure how to explain and then I read your blog post.

    Recasting the struggle to its core has blown me away. Yes, it’s grief. Makes so much more sense!

    Thank you for sharing and causing this moment of epiphany for me. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Abigail – thanks so much for sharing your comment here. It sounds like you had a similar response as I did when I first read Dr. Selinger’s essay. It suddenly made my own growing reluctance around my scheduled video chats somehow make more sense to me.

      Please stay safe…. ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had never been on a video call before Covid19. My children are widespread and busy. My health has been unreliable. It was so exciting when we had our first video call, on my Birthday in April. It was the first time in 12 years we had been “together”. We’ve had more since, to my great pleasure. I realize that I am not typical in my experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Jenn – that Zoom birthday call sounds like it was a big hit! First time in 12 years?! Wow – fantastic!!! Happy Belated Birthday to you…

      I’m glad you mentioned being “not typical” because, as the quotes I included from Dr. Selinger’s readers also confirmed, some people LOVE their video chats, and some people really DON’T love them! There’s no right or wrong way to look at this new technology, is there?

      Personally, I tend to agree with Pilgrim’s comment (below): we both have a love/hate relationship with our Zoom calls!

      Take care, stay safe!! ♥

      Like

  7. I am participating in Zoom-this and Zoom-that. It’s certainly better than nothing. Kudos to those trying to make the most of it.

    My attention flags and often I turn my own camera off and wander while listening, type in my questions, comments. Certainly don’t want them to see that I was ironing during the reading. But with friends and family, I just plain phone. I don’t like performing, looking at a camera to give the impression that I am looking at them.

    I am becoming irritated by a certain “relentlessly positive for the greater good” take of some people. I want to be spending time with my mother, who is in great shape, but she is over 90, and in the Midwest. I am grateful that my sister is nearby and lovingly attentive. We usually visit a few times a year, but that involves a flight (always risky) or several days by car, and in either case, I would have to quarantine somewhere for 2 weeks before we could see each other. She is delighted to FaceTime every day with her great grandchildren in the next state, but normally she would be there during those first steps etc.

    No use dwelling on it in daily life, but none of this can be “made up” later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kathleen, I think you make such a good point when you use the word “performing” to describe video chats. I had to laugh at your ironing example – maybe that can be a new trend for the “Zoom-this” and “Zoom-that” – a bunch of us with our ironing boards set up and a basket of wrinkly shirts to iron!

      In a way, that’s what my Sunday morning Zoom crafting group is doing: all three of us are in our own homes, our craft supplies laid out, papers piled up, ready to work away on whatever project we’ve got on the go. We’re sitting heads down most of the 2 hours, concentrating on our own project, or wandering off to get more coffee, occasionally looking up at the screen to pay attention to a funny story about the past week, or holding up a half-finished project to the camera to say “What do you think of this?” In that way, it’s much closer to our real-life in-person crafting sessions that we used to enjoy compared to most Zoom meetings that don’t involve our hands.

      I think being “relentlessly positive” is pretty exhausting… Thanks for weighing in here today.

      Stay safe…. ♥

      Like

  8. Interesting topic. I have done one video chat doctor visit which ended up glitchy so we talked on the phone. I have never gotten into face time or video chats with friends or family. We seem to be the most comfortable with emails and texts… a phone call if urgent.

    If I explore why? With Family, I know what they look like and will see them in person eventually I don’t need to see their faces to communicate effectively.

    Otherwise, I don’t like inviting strangers or mere acquaintances into my home….Just because it’s a video of them does not make it feel any less intrusive.

    I am a meditative introvert… I get my strength by going within and I do not need a lot of external reinforcement. Just weird that way.

    Although masks are annoying and it is straining to be continually cautious about the current viral situation….I do not pine for things to be the way they were.

    I am excited to see what will “rise from the ashes” Especially here in America and around the world. We are all part of a point in history that has not occurred before. It is a point of global transformation. We need to hold that in our minds and hearts because there are probably several more global occurrences before we hit bottom. At the same time I feel great compassion for the suffering humanity has to go through to get where it needs to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Jill – I know what my family looks like! One of my very favourite things to do is to curl up in my big Red Chair in my jammies for long phone chats with my sister (who lives in the same city, but often works crazy hours so our in-person catching-up walks are often few and far between!) I don’t need a Zoom chat, and I don’t need to change out of my jammies!

      I suspect you’re right. Although some people are talking about “re-opening” as if it’s the magical end of the pandemic and all will be back to “normal”, we have a way to go yet. My saddest thoughts are with all those poor seniors dying along in nursing homes with family members refused access…

      Take care, stay safe… ♥

      Like

  9. Such a good, thoughtful analysis everyone is offering! It certainly has become a different world. I personally, as a retired person, am doing way more Zoom and facetime calls than I ever have before. I have a love/hate relationship with Zoom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Barb – I too have a love/hate relationship with this technology! And I also seem reluctant to start canceling my scheduled Zoom appointments so far, as Dr. Selinger writes in his original essay: “People are struggling to politely opt out, to honour their feelings of burnout without upsetting the people they care about. After all, it’s hard to say you’re unavailable and can’t make an online appearance during a quarantine….”

      Stay safe out there… ♥

      Liked by 1 person

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