Health & Wellbeing

Switching cameras off during meetings found to reduce Zoom fatigue

Switching cameras off during m...
A four-week study found video meetings with cameras switched on led to greater fatigue and less engagement than meetings with cameras off
A four-week study found video meetings with cameras switched on led to greater fatigue and less engagement than meetings with cameras off
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A four-week study found video meetings with cameras switched on led to greater fatigue and less engagement than meetings with cameras off
A four-week study found video meetings with cameras switched on led to greater fatigue and less engagement than meetings with cameras off

New research is offering some of the first empirical evidence of the fatiguing effects of camera use in virtual meetings. The research is part of an increasing body of study into the psychological effects of remote work and the growing phenomenon known as "Zoom fatigue."

Before the pandemic, videoconferencing was a consistent but small part of everyday life for many. Skype, FaceTime and Zoom all existed prior to 2020. But once the pandemic hit, hundreds of millions of people suddenly started spending the majority of their days communicating virtually, from doctors appointments and work meetings to gatherings with family and friends.

A comprehensive article from Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, published earlier this year discussed the growing phenomenon of Zoom fatigue. After studying the psychological effects of virtual communication for over two decades, Bailenson succinctly homed in on four key factors he believed could explain why video meetings can be so unusually exhausting.

Several of those factors related to negative effects of being on camera all the time. And this new research offers some of the first experimental evidence to affirm the role of cameras in amplifying the exhaustion felt after long stretches of video conferencing.

"There's always this assumption that if you have your camera on during meetings, you are going to be more engaged," explains Alison Gabriel, a researcher from the University of Arizona working on the new study. "But there's also a lot of self-presentation pressure associated with being on camera. Having a professional background and looking ready, or keeping children out of the room are among some of the pressures."

To explore the effect of cameras on virtual meeting exhaustion the researchers recruited 103 subjects for a four-week study. Half the cohort were directed to switch their cameras off in all meetings for the first two weeks and then keep their cameras on during meetings for the following two weeks. The other half completed the intervention the other way around, with cameras on initially and then off for the next fortnight.

Each day all subjects completed a short survey measuring fatigue, meeting engagement levels and duration. As well as finding higher levels of fatigue reported by subjects on days with the camera on, regardless of how many meetings they participated in, the researchers interestingly also found engagement levels were lower in meetings on days with the camera switched on.

"When people had cameras on or were told to keep cameras on, they reported more fatigue than their non-camera using counterparts," says Gabriel. "And that fatigue correlated to less voice and less engagement during meetings. So, in reality, those who had cameras on were potentially participating less than those not using cameras. This counters the conventional wisdom that cameras are required to be engaged in virtual meetings."

This reduction in engagement with cameras switched on is a novel finding in the study, and it contradicts previous research suggesting cameras heighten engagement levels in virtual meetings. The researchers hypothesize this finding to be a unique post-pandemic outcome.

“… in a piece written before the pandemic, it was noted that turning the video on 'humanizes the room,' arguing that facial expressions matter,” the researchers write in the newly published study. “Although such sentiments were likely relevant pre-pandemic when virtual meetings were less prevalent, our results suggest that the use of video in virtual meetings poses an additional burden. Our results suggest that employees are likely to feel better when given the option to turn their camera off.”

Another finding from the experiment was levels of camera-related fatigue were higher in women and new employees. This particular finding is echoed in a large survey from Stanford University published earlier this year.

“Women often feel the pressure to be effortlessly perfect or have a greater likelihood of child care interruptions, and newer employees feel like they must be on camera and participate in order to show productiveness,” says Gabriel.

While the study’s findings are robust, they are not without limitations. The researchers do note fatigue measures were only self-reported daily and do not account for any cumulative effect from video meetings with the camera on over days or weeks. It is also pointed out the size and type of meetings were not accounted for in the experiment, so it is not clear whether smaller virtual meetings or meetings with more familiar colleagues make a difference in the camera’s influence on Zoom fatigue.

Ultimately, Gabriel recommends employees are given the ability to choose whether their camera is off or on during a virtual meeting.

"At the end of the day, we want employees to feel autonomous and supported at work in order to be at their best,” says Gabriel. “Having autonomy over using the camera is another step in that direction.”

The new research was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Source: University of Arizona

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