When the arthritis pain in Adam Moore’s spine gets too much to handle, painkillers don’t always cut it. Sitting down in front of the many Zoom classes he attends as a UC Davis PhD student can make things worse. Sometimes, one of the only ways Moore can cope is by turning off his computer camera, lying down on a heating pad, and listening in from his couch.
Moore, who is 26, also lives with generalized anxiety disorder, which makes it hard to focus. “So I turn my camera off and just try to get through the meeting, but [I] often end up doing random tasks around my apartment instead until I feel less anxious,” he told The Daily Beast.
Then there are the days when Moore is just over staring at his face on a screen. “Turning the camera off makes [it] slightly more bearable and helps me maintain one last barrier between work and home while I am working from my kitchen table,” he said.
As many Americans creep towards the one-year anniversary of the day they packed up their desks for the two-week quarantine that never ended, “Zoom fatigue” has become a ubiquitous reality.
The so-called “new normal” of teleworking gave way to plenty of Zoom gaffes. Some were more serious than others, but all were things you did not want to happen to you.
There was the Good Morning America correspondent caught going pants-less during a segment filmed at home (he swore they were shorts, not underwear.) Or the Mexican senator who changed during a government meeting, not realizing her camera was still on. A Peruvian lawyer was also caught having sex during court, who kept going for several minutes and various positions even as the judge and other participants yelled at him to stop.
New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin took the crown for the worst Zoom behavior after he exposed himself during a call between staffers of the magazine and WYNC radio. (It would cost him his job.)
And Texas lawyer Rod Ponton, bless his heart, could not for the life of him figure out how to take down the cat filter while Zooming into court, in a mishap that may have been the only truly good thing to come out of this pandemic.
Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and editor in chief of Verywell Mind, acknowledged that “Video meetings confuse our brains.”
“We see people up close and personal on their cameras,” Morin added. “In real life, we tend to back up a bit when talking to professional associates. So staring at your colleagues when their cameras are just a few inches from their faces can produce some anxiety, like we’re invading their personal space.”
While your co-workers probably are not staring at your face all day—they are likely focusing on their own—Zoom calls can feel like a never-ending spotlight right on your face. You are not alone if it makes you feel self-conscious, Morin said.
“We spend most of the time on a Zoom meeting staring at our own images. Not only are we concerned about how our hair looks but we’re noticing our facial expressions while we’re talking or while we’re listening. This is something we don’t usually see and it distracts us from being able to focus. Looking at our own images and worrying about how we’re being perceived taxes our brain and causes more fatigue,” she said.
“It’s quite anxiety-provoking to be in the spotlight all day,” said Morin. “While your co-workers aren’t really staring at you all the time, you’re likely staring at yourself and feeling as though you’re on stage. This is very taxing mentally.”
Last month, researchers at Stanford published the first peer-reviewed article that examines Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective. The study’s author, Professor Jeremy N. Bailenson, found four main reasons why it occurs.
First: the disembodied, oversized heads that take up the entire Zoom computer screen make us nervous, even if that face does belong to a congenial coworker. Then there is the issue of having to constantly look at yourself, which distracts you from the meeting at hand and makes you think: hm, maybe I am a Botox person after all.
Video chats also limit your mobility, according to the study, which leaves you glued to your desk. A walk and talk would be preferable, instead you are congealed to a seat for eight hours a day. Finally, people tend to over-exaggerate on Zoom to feel engaged. Think: lots of head nodding. It is exhausting.
One solution to telecommuting malaise, according to the study: turn your Zoom camera off.
“Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication, but just think about the medium—just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to,” Bailenson wrote in a Stanford press release.
It can be easier said than done. For the most part, Moore’s professors understand when he feels camera-shy. He’s never been directly called out for turning his camera off, though sometimes meeting hosts will say things like, “It would be wonderful if I could see your faces.”
This can make Moore feel “guilty” on the days that he goes dark, particularly if he’s attending a lecture.
“Lecturers put so much time and energy into their presentations, and I know presenting virtually already sucks and presenting to a bunch of black squares probably makes it worse,” Moore said.
“I’m more worried about how I look now, and I think it’s because everyone’s face is on the same little screen.”
— Olivia Luppino
Olivia Luppino, who is 20 and studies creative writing and the social sciences at Wesleyan College, agreed that she feels “pressure” to leave her camera on.
“I definitely feel guilty when I turn it off, because there’s no way for people to know that I’m present in the discussion [otherwise],” she said. “It feels more supportive and respectful when a professor says, ‘Strive to leave your camera on, but it’s OK if you don’t sometimes.’’’
Luppino says she’s become hyper-aware of her appearance online. Looking good for Zoom is a new stress she never had to deal with before the pandemic.
“I’m more worried about how I look now, and I think it’s because everyone’s face is on the same little screen,” she said. “When you are in-person sitting around a table or in a lecture hall, it feels more anonymous. Now I have to worry about lighting and if my room’s messy. My bed’s in the back of my dorm room [in view of my camera], so it always has to be made.”
Zoom has become a primary source for Luppino’s social life; it’s how she sees her friends and classmates every day. She describes it as “some mixture between a practical [communication] tool and social media.” And so a new beauty standard has been set.
“When I’m running late getting to my computer, and my hair and makeup isn’t what I want it to be, I keep my camera off and it makes me feel more comfortable.”
— Autumn Cabell
It’s the same reason why Autumn Cabell, 27, sometimes keeps her camera off for morning meetings. “On those days where maybe I would have been running late in my commute, but am now running late getting to my computer, and my hair and makeup isn’t what I want it to be, I keep my camera off and it makes me feel more comfortable,” Cabell said.
As an assistant professor of counseling at DePaul University, Cabell has to keep her camera on when she’s teaching. But she does not expect her students to do the same.
“I say on my syllabus and in class that it’s my preference if people can engage with the camera on, however I understand life,” Cabell said. “People have pets, children, all kinds of things. If a camera isn’t possible, that’s fine too.”
Morin, the Verywell Mind editor, suggested workers log in and say hello on camera before turning off their screens. “You could say, ‘I’m going to turn my camera off so I can pay attention,’ or you might simply say, ‘I’m keeping my camera off for this meeting,’ without an explanation,” she said.
But don’t be surprised if it starts a mini-revolution. As Morin added, “You’ll likely find that other people turn their cameras off when you don’t have yours on, and they might be relieved not to feel as though they’re ‘on stage’ as well.”