Why do you feel tired after Zoom meetings? Your poor brain is working overtime
It’s not just back pain or eye strain many of us have to deal with after back-to-back online meetings. You also become stressed out and anxious – and that lousy WiFi connection isn’t helping.
Many of us probably start the work day with a video call. And it won’t end until we’ve had a few more – sometimes, all lined up back-to-back.
You’d think we’d all be used to online meetings at this point of our work-from-home (WFH) life. After all, it’s been seven months since WFH arrangements began in April for most employees.
But here’s the rub: You’re not doing any better in the concentration department and in fact, you feel exhausted by these virtual appointments.
It could be the “brain changes” related to electrical activity in the brain’s neocortex as well as “dopaminergic and cholinergic neurotransmission”, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Gleneagles Hospital, although these changes are “still not well understood”.
“The body and the brain are always looking to maintain a balance or homeostasis,” he explained. “When things are stimulating and interesting, dopamine is secreted and gives us a sense of pleasure."
He continued: "When the Zoom meeting becomes boring, dopamine levels are likely (to) drop and the positive reinforcement to stay focused slowly disappears. As such, there is a natural urge to maintain the level of dopamine by seeking stimulating experiences from the surroundings”.
To give you a rough picture, here’s how your concentration during an online meeting generally pans out, according to Dr Lim:
- 10 minutes
You can sustain continuous concentration. If you do let go of your focus, you can quickly refocus within seconds.
- After 10 minutes
You may take longer and find it more difficult to redirect your attention back to the meeting.
- 30 minutes
Your concentration span may last only three to four minutes before you get distracted by body sensations such as hunger and tiredness.
- After 30 minutes
You may start to fidget more, squirm in your seat more or play with your stationery. You may also start to switch to other screens or attend to other work.
- 45 to 50 minutes
You are no longer listening to the meeting. You may feel the need to leave your seat and do so on the pretext of visiting the bathroom. Or you may start losing interest and be distracted by other tasks such as answering messages or emails.
And that's not mentioning the physical strain that comes from one too many online meetings. "Staring at the monitor at close range and using earphones will also cause fatigue to the eyes and ears, respectively," said Dr Lim.
Your butt and back take a beating, too, especially if your WFH set-up isn't good for your posture. You could be exposing yourself to musculoskeletal injury, such as a bad back, sore neck and shoulders, carpal tunnel syndrome or even deep vein thrombosis.
WHAT’S DISTRACTING AND TIRING YOU OUT
Besides the brain’s chemical reactions, there are external factors that can make it challenging for you to focus and, in turn, tire you out: Your kids demanding attention, a houseplant that needs rescuing from your pet, or renovation noise from the neighbour upstairs.
Then, there is the poor sound quality from your earphones, or slow WiFi connection that’s causing your boss to sound like a character in a badly dubbed TV series – the latter of which can be a big contributor to your Zoom fatigue.
When the Zoom meeting becomes boring, dopamine levels are likely to drop and the positive reinforcement to stay focused slowly disappears.
Humans rely on “precisely timed verbal and non-verbal cues” to communicate, or what the experts call synchrony, said Terri Chen, the head of psychology and a senior clinical psychologist with National University Hospital’s Department of Psychological Medicine.
This synchrony may be disrupted when your speech may not match your mouth movements on screen.
And it doesn’t take a big mismatch to mess with your brain. “If there is a delay introduced, even if it is only milliseconds, subconsciously, the brain will register the issue and work harder to try to overcome it to restore synchrony,” said Chen.
The result? Your brain has to work “overtime” to restore synchrony, which leads to fatigue from the mental exertion, and increased feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction from the inability to achieve it, she said.
“The multi-person screens tax the brain further from the need to process and decode so much information all at once.”
OTHER FACTORS THAT TIRE YOU OUT
As if those scenarios aren’t tiring – or stressing – you out enough, there is also the pressure to show that you’re not zoning out during a Zoom meeting.
“Some individuals feel fatigue on the basis of video scrutiny, referring to the effect of feeling like one is being watched, judged, or evaluated as to their level of engagement through head nodding, or other forms of attention,” commented Dr Clay Cowl, who chairs Mayo Clinic's Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine, through email.
It isn’t smooth sailing for the speaker either, owing to the difficulty in ascertaining people’s body language and facial expressions online, said Dr Lim.
Consider using alternative forms of communication such as telephone calls or switch off video interactions.
“For the speaker, it is harder to get acknowledgement or feedback from the audience. It can be quite disconcerting not knowing if your audience heard you well or caught what you said.”
Chen added: “For instance, we can’t differentiate if a person is staring ahead at the screen because he is paying attention, replying an email, or there is another cause of silence during the meeting. This uncertainty gives rise to more anxiety”.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Professor Colin West, a general internal medicine physician at Mayo Clinic who researches burnout, suggested limiting online meetings to “no longer than two hours at a stretch without a break, and shorter stretches with multiple brief breaks would be ideal”.
“The duration of a given meeting is less important than the stretch of time between breaks,” responded Prof West through email.
“This may not be much different from physical meeting schedules, but sometimes, the breaks commonly built in between physical meetings get overlooked when building Zoom meeting schedules,” he said.
If two hours at a stretch is too much for your attention span, keep it to 45 minutes and have a 15-minute break after that, recommended Dr Lim. “Participants should be allowed to look away from the screen every 10 to 15 minutes to allow their eyes to rest.”
Sometimes, the breaks commonly built in between physical meetings get overlooked when building Zoom meeting schedules.
Also, don’t schedule back-to-back meetings for yourself. If you can’t avoid that, “it would be helpful to schedule small pockets of time, even five minutes, in between meetings to allow us the chance to refresh ourselves mentally”, said Chen.
How the meeting is conducted can make or break your ability to focus, too. For instance, observing etiquette like raising your hand before talking can make it clear who is speaking, said Dr Lim.
This is helpful as it is sometimes difficult to determine who is speaking, especially when the discussion gets heated.
“It may be useful for some to take notes or even record the session for playback if they find it hard to follow or have a tendency to zone out during the meetings,” he said.
After a video call or during a break, “stand up, stretch, walk around, or get a beverage”, suggested Dr Cowl. “Sometimes, just leaving the room we have been stationed in for an hour can ‘reboot’ our attention span.”
Or you could try Chen’s suggestion to describe some of the objects around you as a good way to refresh yourself. Or use your imagination to take a ‘quick holiday’ based on pleasant memories to “help to reset our minds”.
WHEN PLANNING MEETINGS
Is there a maximum number of meetings we should limit ourselves to daily?
“Different individuals will have different stamina for Zoom meetings,” said Dr Lim.
“Rather than limiting the number of meetings, it will be more practical to keep meetings short and sweet, allow for adequate breaks during and in-between meetings, and avoid having meetings during unearthly hours.”
Dr Cowl suggested outlining the goal of a meeting at the beginning and emphasising some ground rules such as allowing participants to sip a beverage or other informalities as appropriate.
“Challenge the participants with the concept that this meeting can be shorter and ‘give back time’ to the participants if the meeting goals can be achieved more rapidly,” he said.
It doesn’t always have to be via Zoom either, said Chen. “Consider using alternative forms of communication such as telephone calls or switch off video interactions for some meetings to take a break and allow your brain a chance to switch gears between meetings.”