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Alicia Jenelle spends the majority of her day on video calls to continue running her event planning business through the COVID-19 pandemic from her basement apartment. Focusing on virtual events, Alicia says she was a regular user of Zoom and other video conferencing software, but now it’s a constant in her daily life.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Alicia Jenelle feels drained these days, and she believes videoconferencing is to blame. Since the pandemic, Ms. Jenelle, who leads a Toronto event planning firm, has replaced all her work chats, coffee dates and lunch appointments with virtual meetings over Zoom, Cisco Webex and Microsoft Teams.

“It’s a lot,” she says, estimating she now spends eight hours a day on various videoconferences and webinars. “I’m feeling so exhausted.”

Ms. Jenelle is experiencing what some have dubbed “Zoom fatigue.”

Sparked by the need to practise physical distancing during the COVID-19 crisis, many of our daily interactions are now conducted remotely by video, from workplace meetings and social hangouts to doctor appointments, school lessons and court hearings. But while videoconferencing is helping us stay connected, it also requires our brains to work much harder, says André Spicer, a professor of organizational behaviour at University of London.

When we communicate in person, we pick up on a lot of non-verbal cues, such as subtle changes in the other person’s facial muscles or whether they’re tapping their foot with impatience, Dr. Spicer explains.

“All of that information helps us to make sense of what’s going on,” he says. “If you don’t have that and you’ve just got a little square or picture of someone on-screen, which is hard to see and there’s time lag, then our brain has to kind of unconsciously work quite hard to add in and interpret that … information.”

Our brains also work to fill in these gaps when we make phone calls or read messages. For instance, when reading a letter, we imagine what the writer is saying and our brains make up for the lack of other cues, Dr. Spicer explains. But videoconferences can be particularly taxing because while we can focus on listening to someone’s voice during a phone call or on reading their words, it can be difficult to focus on the content of both the audio input and visual input, especially when there’s a disconnect between the two.

At Algonquin College, learning technologist and part-time professor Louisa Lambregts says this kind of conflict in how we process information is why it’s ill-advised for online instructors and presenters to show slides with verbatim text of what they say.

For participants, “you’re always having to switch your attention based on what you’re trying to listen to and what you’re trying to read,” she says.

To reduce her audience’s cognitive load – that is, the effort it takes their brains to process information, Ms. Lambregts designs her online presentations and learning sessions to ensure the audio is the focus, and she creates slides that use powerful images and only a few words to reinforce her key messages.

“When you have that combination, then that allows your brain the optimal conditions for remembering,” she says.

The sheer number of videoconferencing meetings, and the lack of opportunity to socialize during breaks and before and after virtual events contribute to the sense of fatigue people are feeling, says Willi Wiesner, associate professor of human resources and management at McMaster University.

Dr. Wiesner says he is finding he’s now participating in more meetings than ever, likely in part because people need to consult each other to address the uncertainty and changes arising from the pandemic. At the same time, without the kinds of informal socializing that occurs in-person, communication via virtual meetings tends to be quite stilted.

During videoconferences, participants also lose eye contact, especially when their cameras aren’t aligned with their line of vision or when there are multiple people on the screen, he says. And signal delays and voice distortions arising from poor internet connections can cause frustration.

These technological problems and constraints can also affect the impression one makes on others, Dr. Wiesner says, noting in a 2013 study, he and his team found job applicants and interviewers thought each other less personable and trustworthy in video interviews than in person.

Ms. Jenelle says there’s a performative aspect to videoconferencing, which adds to her own exhaustion. She feels as though she always has to be “on” while participating in a virtual meetings, since she is aware other people are watching her.

As her clientele for weddings, social events and corporate events moves online, Ms. Jenelle now finds herself coaching them on how to run virtual events and cut through “Zoom fatigue.” Among her recommendations, she says to keep video presentations and conferences short, sweet and focused. She also suggests making it optional for people to turn on their cameras, scheduling breaks and finding ways to communicate offline as well.

Dr. Spicer suggests turning off the image of yourself altogether when possible, as it can be distracting and make you self-conscious. “There’s no other form of human communication where you have yourself staring back at yourself when you’re talking,” he says.

And while there are no hard and fast rules about when and when not to use videoconferencing, Dr. Spicer says it’s important to use a mix of communication methods.

“Don’t default to Zoom,” he says.

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