April 14, 2024
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Five Practical Suggestions to Counter Zoom Fatigue

As we enter the third month of social distancing, the magic of Zoom has worn off. While Zoom and other videoconference apps are wonderful tools that help us stay together in this era of social distancing and have facilitated virtual work meetings, classrooms, shiurim and family gatherings, many are starting to notice how exhausting it is to spend all day or even a few hours on Zoom. Recently, National Geographic has coined a new term to describe this phenomenon, “Zoom fatigue” (https://tinyurl.com/ngzoomfatigue).

So why is it that videoconferencing can be so exhausting? We humans as social beings are wired to interact in person. In social situations, we intuitively interpret so much more than what a person is saying. We read body language and hand motions. Is someone looking at us or looking away? Do they show rapt attention or are they fidgeting? When listening to another, we mimic facial features, nod and pause to show we are listening and understand. None of this is possible with Zoom. We only see people’s faces, not their bodies. We have a conversation with slight delays in sound due to latency over the internet and an image resembling face to face but at a much lower resolution than the real world, due to the compression required to send video over the web. When viewing people in the presenter view, it appears that the other person is either staring right at us, which becomes disconcerting after a few seconds, or they are looking away, which makes us wonder why. And in the Brady Bunch-style gallery view, a trademark of Zoom that Google and Microsoft are quickly copying, we see small images of dozens of participants. This is not a normal way to carry on a group conversation, encouraging smaller two-way conversations with everyone else listening as observers.

All of this confuses our brains. We try to treat Zoom like a genuine face-to-face conversation, straining for all of the regular social cues, but when it’s done we feel exhausted and drained and we don’t quite know why. Researchers compare this to eating a store-bought blueberry muffin filled with artificial ingredients. It looks like a muffin and may taste like a muffin, but it leaves us feeling empty instead of satisfied.

Zoom also disrupts our work/life balance as we maintain all our interactions on the same platform in the same place. Working from home can be wonderful to sneak a load of laundry between meetings, but when you Zoom for pleasure and for work, when classes and business meetings are interrupted by other family members in cramped spaces, it can be a real challenge. I commute 30 minutes by car each day to work. I value this time as an opportunity to mentally prepare for the day or unwind and destress before I reenter my home. I listen to music or podcasts or just let my brain wander and come home ready for family time. None of this is possible in our virtual learning environment.

So what can we do to counter Zoom fatigue? Here are five practical suggestions.

1) Get out of bed.

Many children are Zooming from their beds glued to their computer screen. For this reason, our school, Yeshivat Frisch, made a policy after the first day of Zooming that students are not allowed to do this. I would recommend that all parents follow this advice. Besides the fact that staying all day in bed is never a mood enhancer, this can be very taxing on the eyes, leading to eye strain, headaches and fatigue. An article in the Atlantic (https://tinyurl.com/theatlanticscreens) recommends that one sit at a desk or table at least an arm’s length away from the computer. They call this the high-five test. Your computer should be far enough away from you that you can fully extend your arm and high five the screen. This is one important way to address the work/life balance, as a basic part of our students’ getting ready for school is just getting out of bed—which leads to my second suggestion.

2) Dress the part.

When working from home it is tempting to dress down. However, keeping a daily routine is important, and dressing the part can help us transition to work and school mode. While working from home, one can certainly dress for comfort but should keep a modicum of work attire and we should encourage our children to follow the school dress code as much as possible so it feels like school. The way we dress can enhance our mood, so dress for success. This also contributes to a sense of a daily schedule, a time for school or work, which is so important when everything seems to combine together in our virtual environment.

3) Get outside or at least sit by a window.

The glare of the computer screen is not good for our eyes, even when we keep the proper distance from the screen. It can enhance the sense of Zoom fatigue that sets in from our disconnected conversations conducted entirely over computer screens. Facing a window if possible will lift our spirits since sunlight can increase the release of hormones associated with increasing calm and focus (https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight). It will also enhance how we look on the screen. (While sitting with a window behind us overexposes the background making our faces appear dark.)

Another mood enhancer (weather permitting) is getting outside. While social distancing, I have taken every opportunity to start each day with morning prayers outside on my porch. I find that I concentrate better when praying alone if I can sing many of the tefillot out loud, something not easy to do during the early morning hours of a busy house. The time outside in the sun and outdoors to start my day enhances my mood, getting me ready for my day.

While teaching over Zoom, I encourage my students to get outside even during class. One of the benefits of an online class is that lacking the structure of regular school, students don’t have to sit in straight rows facing the teacher. (My classroom rarely looks that way in school anyway.) A student can learn over Zoom while standing up if that is easier for her or go outside with a laptop to Zoom class. As a teacher, I will at times teach outside as well. Lacking so many of the normal conversational cues in videoconferencing as I described earlier, it is important to be a bit exaggerated over Zoom to communicate that we care. I will often take breaks from the learning during class to ask students how they are doing, to show them my outside, even to take them on a tour of my backyard. I will do anything that can transform this virtual classroom into a genuine human interaction.

4) Exercise.

Exercise is another mood enhancer whether going for a walk outdoors or using exercise gear in the house. With the refrigerator always near, it is so easy to overeat during this pandemic. Exercise is a key facet of keeping our minds and bodies healthy during these uncertain times.

5) Schedule digital downtime.

One of the greatest gifts we as Jews have from our creator is the gift of Shabbat, our palace in time. The time when we take a day to turn off all of our Zooms and other digital devices and interact face to face. I feel so refreshed after the Shabbat is over that I often do my best writing and thinking on Saturday night, Motzei Shabbat. I have even written about this in the past (see http://techrav.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-i-blog-on-motzi-shabbat-problem-of.html).

With so many hours of screen time on a daily basis during the current pandemic, it is important that we bring this lesson from Shabbat into our lives throughout the week and schedule digital downtime into every day. This can be combined with the time we get outside and exercise by taking socially distant walks. When the weather is good, we encourage our own children after class each day to get off their devices and play outside. Schools have recognized this, and many day schools including my own have shortened the online school day and encouraged our students to take time each day in the afternoon to get off their devices and spend time outside. Taking breaks from all screens is so important to recharge our minds and bodies to be productive online and lessen fatigue.

It is my hope that with these suggestions we can better navigate our virtual lives so we can retain meaningful online interactions while appreciating each other even more when we are once again able to get together in person when this pandemic is over.


Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of educational technology at Yeshivat Frisch where he helps teachers and students to use technology in meaningful ways to further learning. He is also an avid blogger and user of social media. You can read his blog at http://techrav.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter @TechRav.

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