University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Zoom Fatigue May Be Here To Stay

Business with sticky notes on his eyes falling asleep
May 02, 2023  |  By Nabiha Khetani, Chris Rosen, Maira Ezerins

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The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 shut down the world in an unpredictable way. The first few weeks may have seemed like a staycation to some when all in-person activities were replaced by virtual meetings. Employees and students who were working remotely could stay in their pajamas to work from the comfort of their bed or couch. Zoom, one of the many video conferencing services, rose to the top with daily users spiking to 200 million in March 2020. It served as a creative outlet for people to stay social through virtual happy hours and birthday parties and for managers to keep their employees working.  

However, after just a few weeks of remote work, complaints of “Zoom fatigue” or “virtual meeting fatigue” appeared. Employees were feeling drained and lacking energy after a day of working through a computer screen. Even though more people have returned full-time to the office, remote work is here to stay and so are the feelings of fatigue it creates. 

One of the main features of virtual meetings is whether the camera is on or off. Zoom users can conveniently turn their camera off with a quick click on the bottom of their screen. University of Arkansas Professor Christopher C. Rosen and Ph.D. Candidate Maira E. Ezerins, along with Kristen M. Shockley, Allison S. Gabriel, Daron Robertson Nitya Chawla, Mahira L. Ganster study the effects of having the camera on versus off. Findings from “The Fatiguing Effects of Camera Use in Virtual Meetings: A Within-Person Field Experiment,” provide insights for organizations using remote work.  

How the Self Leads to Fatigue  

The feeling of being “watched” in virtual meetings enhances the need to control impressions and directs focus to the self rather than the meeting, which induces fatigue. Therefore, employees experience greater feelings of daily fatigue when the camera is on versus when it is off and employers who encourage the use of camera may inadvertently harm positive virtual work behaviors.  

Self-presentation, or impression management, constitutes the ways that people control how they are perceived by others. Self-presentation theory refers to the idea that people have a desire to be liked by others. We all, unsurprisingly want to appear attractive, interesting, and competent.  

People who keep their camera on during virtual meetings will rely on self-presentation more than those who have it switched off. They are more likely to have a higher sense of being watched, which is linked to greater impression management. Likewise, seeing our own video images on the screen has been linked to greater self-evaluation and self-focus, both of which may prompt us to turn our attention away from the meeting to ourselves. In general, this self-awareness can benefit employees and their workplaces, but it is also a cognitively demanding task that requires one to carefully track their behavior during social interactions. Employees may thus divert their attention and energy from the content of the meeting to how they think they are being perceived by coworkers.  

The same thing occurs when people attempt to convey and interpret nonverbal cues in virtual meetings. These cues add to a lack of message clarity and uncertainty in meetings that could be avoided with audio-only interactions. Regardless of if others have their camera on, those who do will try harder to send extra intentional nonverbal cues. These cues may include nodding exaggeratedly to show agreement or making excessive eye contact by looking directly in the camera. Any of these attempted nonverbal cues can distract the individual attempting them, further directing cognition, attention, and energy away from the meeting.  

Who and How the Camera Impacts  

Self-presentation, simply put, is the route to fatigue in virtual meetings and can leave an employee deficient in their actual performance at work. The researchers measure two indicators of performance specific to meetings: voice and engagement. Voice and engagement are related to self-presentation since coworkers can observe and evaluate others’ voice-related behaviors. Being engaged in a meeting and voicing your thoughts requires the use of cognitive resources; using a camera, however, can consume these resources. 

Beyond the effects of camera use, the study authors hypothesized that there are certain employees who are more inclined to think about their self-presentation- and therefore experience negative outcomes related to camera usage - in virtual meetings. Specifically, guided by expectation states theory, the researchers explore how female employees and newer employees are affected more by fatigue.  

The central idea of expectation states theory is that people evaluate others in the workplace based on two criteria: specific skills and abilities related to the job, such as previous experience, and status characteristics. Status characteristics include gender, race, and education; anything that may predispose people to assign a higher or lower status to an individual. Although these characteristics give no indication of job performance, females in the workplace have often been unfairly assigned lower status. Women are thus judged more harshly by others. As a result, when female workers have their cameras on, they feel increased pressure to engage in self-presentation, which can lead to fatigue.  

On top of that, individuals who have their camera on in virtual meetings must maintain a professional appearance. There is a greater pressure for women to appear ‘groomed’ and in the right ‘attire.’ COVID-19 magnified these gender differences, as many services used to maintain professional appearances, such as hair and nail salons and dermatological services, were shut down. Along with that, the pandemic also increased gender differences in the family because mothers were (and still are) much more likely to have a family member walk into a virtual call. These interruptions can create increased concerns about career implications and professionalism that then lead to women feeling even greater fatigue throughout the day. 

Virtual meetings with the camera on can also be fatiguing for newer employees within an organization. Relating back to the self-presentation theory, employees who have been there longer have had time to create and refine their image. They have an “assigned status” that contributes to them being viewed as more reputable whereas newer employees are attempting to break from their “fledging” status to establish that they are qualified. 

Those who have been with the company longer won’t necessarily think about how they are being perceived on camera because their professional image is already developed. It is less critical to their impression and they will not feel as much fatigue as a newer employee who has to build their professional image via online meetings.  

Post-Pandemic Implications 

The findings of this research clarify that self-presentation and its fatigue-related costs are amplified in a virtual meeting where the camera is turned on. Using the camera is tiring and its effects are not influenced by time spent in or number of virtual meetings. It’s less about the time spent in meetings and more about the extra stressors and pressures many employees, namely women and newer employees, feel every single time they’re in certain types of meetings. 

Virtual meetings with camera use enhance this idea of being “watched” which causes employees to feel the need to manage impressions more. It diverts their attention and focus inward, inducing fatigue. Encouraging the use of camera can hinder one’s voice and engagement in a meeting, harming positive virtual work behaviors.  

Organizations that conduct remote work can practice ways to best support their employees, especially women and those who are newer. The researchers suggest companies that give their employees the choice of whether to have their camera on or off will help. This doesn’t mean having the camera off is universally more engaging, but the overall morale of employees will increase if they are given more autonomy over the use of their camera.  

Matt WallerChristopher C. Rosen is a professor and the John H. Tyson Chair in Business Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received a B.A. in Psychology and Economics from Washington and Lee University, his M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management from Appalachian State University, and his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron. His research covers a broad range of topics, including employee well-being, self-regulation, and organizational politics. He currently serves as an associate editor for Journal of Management and is chair of the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management

Nabiha KhetaniNabiha Khetani is a Senior at the University of Arkansas studying Political Science and Journalism. She serves as a volunteer for the Washington County Teen Court program, is an active member of the Pre-Law Society, and part of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. She has always enjoyed writing, and her post-graduate plans include attending law school to one day become a practicing attorney.