By Aakash Desai, MBBS, MPH, and Ariela Marshall, MD
In addition to (and as a direct result of) the COVID19 pandemic, 2020 saw a pandemic rise in the use of Zoom! (And of other similar video conferencing applications.) Yes, that white video camera icon on the blue background has become both the boon and bane of our existences. By now, most of us have “gotten on another call,” “sent a Zoom invite,” and “unmuted ourselves”—often on multiple occasions in a single day.
Video conferencing has become an essential communication tool for businesses, education, and personal connections during the pandemic. It has become a staple in many households, growing from 10 million people attending online meetings at the end of 2019 to 300 million in April 2020.
Although video conferencing software offers a great platform to continue “business as usual” during these difficult times, it has brought its challenges and problems. Those of us working in medicine during a global health crisis have been battling burnout for quite a while now. Zoom has added to that fatigue, with multiple meetings, conferences, patient visits, and social calls all crammed into one workday. The myth of multitasking has never been truer. Since Zoom gives us the ability to be in multiple places at once, we often risk ending up nowhere.
Videoconferencing presents many communication pitfalls including the inability to read body language, faces that move into different spots on the screen, a distracting chat feature to accommodate side comments, and transmission delays that hinder turn-taking. Furthermore, while it feels easy to hop on a Zoom call for work, followed by virtual social events on nights and weekends, all without ever leaving home, the back-to-back video chats can be exhausting. Psychologically, videoconferencing deprives us of face-to-face conversation and the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin which are linked to feelings of pleasure.
Accessibility to our coworkers, family, and friends offered much-needed comfort in March and April 2020. However, as the pandemic drags on, the constant Zooming sessions have likely taken a toll on our well-being. Now that remote work and social distancing are part of our daily lives for the foreseeable future, such intensive Zoom marathons feel less sustainable. This affliction, which has come to be known as “Zoom fatigue,” is way more than a byproduct of too many meetings.
Social scientists say it’s the result of the sudden mass adoption of technology that disrupts the normal, instinctual, and finely tuned way of communicating that developed to help humans survive. Video conferences force us to focus more intently on conversations to absorb information. Given that we have access to the internet during most of these meetings, it becomes easier than ever to lose focus. Also, the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera, and this constant gazing often makes us uncomfortable and tired.
Another major challenge with online meetings is the blurring of lines between work and home. We’re no longer just dialing into one or two virtual meetings. We’re continuously finding polite new ways to ask our loved ones not to disturb us, or tuning them out. There has been a significant loss of work-life balance as we feel the need to be available to work colleagues outside of work hours. Although online meetings have reduced our commute times, that time has been replaced (and even expanded) by more work in the form of more Zoom calls. Most concerning is the lack of respect for personal time during off-hours, with meetings now happening 24-7 as we collaborate with colleagues in other time zones.
Below we offer some tips/solutions for avoiding Zoom fatigue and maximizing your time during online meetings:
- Avoid multitasking! Although tempting, avoid web browsing, opening electronic medical records (EMRs), and answering emails during meetings. Single-tasking and focusing on your meeting as if it were taking place in person may improve productivity and meaningful discussion during the call.
- Build in breaks between meetings. This can be easily done by reducing meeting times to 50 minutes instead of an hour or 25 minutes instead of half an hour. If your institution or practice uses Microsoft Outlook, an Outlook feature can help to make sure that 5 to 10 minutes are built in before every meeting by ending meetings early.
- Prepare a meeting agenda beforehand to avoid distractions. Remember to “make it a sprint, not a marathon”! Stay focused and don’t cram too many topics into a single call.
- Reduce onscreen stimuli. Research has shown that when you’re on video, you tend to spend the most time gazing at your own face. This can be easily avoided by hiding yourself from view.
- To combat mental fatigue, encourage people to use plain backgrounds (e.g. a poster of a peaceful beach scene), or agree as a group to have everyone who is not talking turn off their video.
- Try to limit nonurgent calls to one or two per week in order to optimize your efficiency, time, and personal life.
- Give yourself a break from video. Do not be afraid to say something like, “I’d love a break from video calls. Do you mind if we do this over the phone?” Most likely the other person will be relieved by the switch, too.
Lastly, you’ve probably heard this lot lately but it’s worth saying again: Be kind to yourself during this time. The past year was unlike any other for many of us and it’s a lot to process. It’s always important to set boundaries, and that’s only truer in the middle of a global pandemic and an often panic-inducing news cycle. Let us all set and respect each other’s boundaries, mental health, and time during this Zoom-centric era!
Dr. Desai is a first-year hematology-oncology fellow at Mayo Clinic, Rochester. He holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and a certification in Health Professions Education from University of Connecticut. He also serves as a secretary for the Minnesota State Medical Association Resident and Fellow Section. His professional interests include evidence base in oncology, clinical trials, drug development, cancer care quality, and health care delivery. He is one of the founding members of the grassroots consortium focusing on COVID-19 in patients with cancer now known as the COVID19 and Cancer Consortium (CCC19; @COVID19nCCC). Follow him on Twitter @ADesaiMD. Disclosure.
Dr. Marshall is an associate professor of medicine in hematology and the associate program director of the Hematology-Oncology Fellowship at Mayo Clinic, Rochester. She is a career medical educator and education scholar with specific interests in career development, leadership, and mentorship, particularly for women in medicine. She is the section lead for the Lancet Haemtology Diversity and Inclusion and holds leadership roles in multiple national and international committees including the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Medical Educators Institute, ASH Women in Hematology Group, American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) Gender Equity Task Force, among others. Follow her on Twitter @AMarshallMD. Disclosure.