An Interview With Dr. Mark Toh – Coping with Video-Conferencing Fatigue
Dr Mark Toh is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist @ Promise Healthcare.
Is there a reason why these virtual meetings are so exhausting? How is video calling different from face-to-face meetings in terms of mental load?
There have been many changes placed on us as a result of the government’s attempts to create social distancing between one another in response to the threat of COVID-19 in Singapore. For the employed, perhaps the most significant change involves having to work at home instead of working out of our regular workplaces away from home. Accordingly, the necessary attempts to communicate at work have now to be moved online since face-to-face meetings at work have been prevented. The result of having to conduct our regular conversations and discussions previously in the workplace to the online format means that facing the laptop to attend to vocational as well as social in one location becomes the common practice instead. There are certain characteristics of this practice which leaves users of video-conferencing fatigued:
(a) Previously at a regular meeting often at a conference site, the meetings carry a bigger social bearing. At a virtual meeting, this social bearing is reduced to what is visible only on a screen. Instead of the opportunity to scan the room previously which allows our eyes to adjust and therefore cope with eye strain, virtual meetings mean our gaze is now focused only on what is confined within this screen. We have to stare at this screen and then process everything we hear or see often over a protracted period within a certain frame. As a result, there can be visual overload and mental strain.
(b) Virtual meetings also require more effort than face-to-face meetings. We have to work harder to process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language. In contrast to face-to-face encounters, virtual meetings require more effort to assess social and personal meaning because of the context. According to Dr Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, there is a dissonance that emerges during virtual meetings because during this interaction between participants in this format, “our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not.” This dissonance or disconnection causes people to have conflicting feelings which add to the fatigue. This makes it difficult for people to relax into the conversation naturally.
(c) Dr Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology also describes the fatigue that can come from being watched because the camera is physically and constantly focused on us. In natural social settings, this does not happen. During virtual meetings, people can feel they are on stage and therefore, they feel the social pressure and are expected to perform. The larger the group, the stronger the pressure.
(d) There is also the stress that comes from delays on phone or conferencing systems or when the screen freezes. Glitches in the application of technology put pressure for the participants to ensure that relevant or significant information is not missed out, or to avoid misunderstanding information from what has been communicated. This becomes harder to slow down to clarify when there is a group meeting out of concern that questions could be seen as interference within a tenuous electronic connection.
(e) Visual overload and fatigue that comes from constant online viewing occur not only if meetings are long or frequent with its inherent stresses. The restriction to home has also placed reliance on engaging other activities online, eg. taking classes, ordering food, maintaining social connections outside the immediate family. If there is a practice of over-reliance on the computer screen to attend to other interests, the physical effort to position ourselves at a prolonged period in front of this screen can also create fatigue.
(f) The strain that comes from virtual meetings can be accumulative when meetings are arranged close to one another. Since the worker is already confined at home, virtual meetings can easily be scheduled one after another. The meetings can appear to be executed efficiently. But there may not be any mental breaks in between.
(g) Dr Petriglieri also noted that meeting online creates stress from being reminded that the familiar context has been disrupted by the pandemic. We are all coping within a crisis that has taken the lives of the elderly and the vulnerable in society and endangers our well-being. It is also stressful in the fact that we are used to separating different relationships such as family, friends or colleagues. But now they are all happening within the same space. The self-complexity theory posits that individuals have multiple aspects about themselves –context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities and goals–and we find this healthy. When we find this variety reduced, we become disoriented and become more vulnerable to negative feelings. Over a prolonged period of the self-quarantine, he notes the effect: “We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window.”
How do you alleviate the exhaustion that comes with virtual meetings? Are you able to share a few tips or suggestions?
In light of the stresses and strains of increased virtual meetings as outlined, I would suggest the following:
(a) limit the video calls to only what is necessary; this implies that it is important to take breaks from electronic devices, in general, to avoid over-reliance on them and the subsequent emotional effects from excessive use,
(b) allow for the option to turn off cameras on yourself to be involved and/or face the screen off to one side so that you can concentrate without feeling the pressure to be on camera,
(c) plan breaks in between virtual meetings so that the body and mind have a chance for a break, eg. getting the body to move and stretch increases blood flow and reduce mental fatigue,
(d) if virtual meetings are unavoidable and long, learn to practice the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, takes 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away. Remember that the electronic devices are our tools and not our master.
What can bosses or organizers of these meetings do to facilitate these meetings so people don’t leave the meetings feeling exhausted? (While taking into consideration, the time spent on these meetings, or the feelings of the attendees)
It may help to start the meeting by quickly checking in to each other’s well-being. Being ready to acknowledge that the virtual meetings are unusual and that working at home means having to accommodate other family members inconvenienced by the pandemic invites everyone to be mindful about coping collectively with the current disruption. Secondly, consider if virtual meetings are the best way to work. To prevent information overload, would sharing files be more effective? Or the use of the phone to communicate may be a better device in many cases if there is only simple information to share. Thirdly, it may help if the meeting agenda is clearly defined and the end of the meeting is outlined at the start to reduce mental fatigue. Can the meetings be brief knowing that other meetings may be required? If meetings are prolonged, plan for breaks.
What can attendees/employees do to reduce the number of hours spent on video calls? (for example, what they can say to their bosses, or to keep track of the time so everyone is on track)
There needs to be increased education all around related to this topic of fatigue that comes from increased video-conferencing. It is a condition exacerbated by changes at work because of the pandemic. Employees should know their limits. If they recognize when fatigue sets in from excessive computer use, they should limit themselves from relying on their electronic gadgets throughout the day. Research has already shown that excessive computer use is correlated with depression. With more apps available online, there is an increased potential to become more dependent on electronic devices already. During this pandemic, the pressure to depend on the computer through increased virtual meetings is intensified. It is times like this when the wise among us would learn to separate the benefits of computer use from its downsides.
In light of this knowledge, employees can be more proactive to define the perimeters in which they would like to have virtual meetings conducted. If they recognize when fatigue will set in because of prolonged virtual meetings, they can ask to clarify (or specify) to their managers how long the meetings will take to monitor their mental and physical strain. In cases when prolonged virtual meetings are unavoidable, they can clarify if permission can be given to practice adjustments such as moving around as a way of coping with eye strain or from limited mobility experienced during the meetings, avoid the direct exposure to the camera, mute the calls to focus on listening or take breaks after every hour. At times, a person may have to prepare for any interference from young children who find it hard to ignore the presence of the parent at home.
How do we instil positivity in our working lives, when the line between work and home is so blurred right now?
The pandemic and the subsequent quarantine is experienced as a period of adversity to some people. The emotional distress that comes from being quarantined has been recognized as common during this period. Common symptoms of this distress include fear, sadness, numbness, insomnia, confusion, anger, stress, irritability, post-traumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, low mood, emotional exhaustion and emotional disturbance (eg. paranoia, anxiety). More specifically, people are faced with the disruption to the routines they have set up to cope with their stressors before the imposition of the quarantine. Distress is experienced because of the effect of the disruption on their autonomy, their sense of competence (being in charge of their lives to cope with their lives), their connectedness and their sense of security. It is a test on our resilience and ability to cope.
At the same time, the very challenge of this situation also provides us with the opportunity to develop our resilience. The first step is to understand and remember that these circumstances are temporary and not permanent. Pandemics happen but they are not frequent in history. Secondly, realize that there is a way to cope with the circumstances. As such, coping with this current situation is priority. I would suggest the following:
(a) Establish a routine for yourself (and that of your children). By creating a structure to attend to work and recreation, you start to organize and occupy yourself with addressing your daily needs as well as that of your family.
(b) Be as active as possible to maintain a fitness level physically, mentally and relationally for yourself and with your family. This also helps to battle against boredom. There are exercise videos online which you and your children can participate together to exercise as well as bond together. Also, for a personal project, you can ask yourself, “What will it take for me to become physically and mentally and relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?” Be curious about how to grow your resilience and to nurture the best version of yourself. Or as a parent, create a project to help your child develop resilience in their own lives and ask, “How can I help my children become physically, mentally or relationally stronger as a result of this crisis?”
(c) Deal with boredom by creating projects that self-nurture, eg. start a hobby or clean out your closet. Competing personal tasks provide a sense of purpose and maintain a sense of competency despite the external circumstances. Creating plans daily offer a focus on accomplishing what is important to your well-being.
(d) Communicate more to avoid isolation as well as cope with boredom. This can be an opportunity to nurture relationships if you are in quarantine with family and to strengthen social bonds with them, or with your support group. Remember that kids may be stressed too from this experience. More time together can provide opportunities for increased play to increase bonding. Games are useful means to bring fun into your relationships and to develop socially besides your entertainment. It can also become a reminder that the family is safe and coping together.
(e) Be informed without being overwhelmed to cope with the anxiety that comes from the unknown. The Straits Times newspaper provide a useful daily update so that you can monitor the threat of the virus rather than obtaining information from cable news. There is much information on the virus today locally and globally so be careful not to become obsessed with the topic.
(f) If you find that your distress is becoming more intense, consider support for your mental health. Your mental health is very important for your daily and long-term functioning. Different places may offer telehealth support where you can consult a therapist or mental health professional. Some services are available online and they can be reached through email, phone calls, texts or video calls.
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