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Virtual meeting fatigue

Recently I’ve been asked a lot about how to mentally adjust to the new world of virtual meetings and how to get through these meetings without feeling exhausted, so with mental health awareness week upon us, I thought now would be an ideal time to share my thoughts.

Why are virtual meetings so exhausting?

There are various reasons that we might find virtual meetings more exhausting. In general:

  • When we meet someone in person we subconsciously pick up all sorts of information from facial expressions, tone of voice, pitch of voice and body language. In virtual meetings, subconsciously, we’re still trying to pick up this information, but being separated by a screen means it takes much more focus and energy. Likewise, we’ll also, subconsciously, be aware that others in virtual meetings might have difficulty picking up on our communication cues and this can lead us to expend extra energy exaggerating our cues to compensate.
  • Virtual meetings also expose us to excessive amounts of close-up eye contact. Before virtual meetings, this was something we only previously experienced when we let someone into our personal space or if they invaded it, naturally therefore we experience the same intense emotions and this can leave us feeling on edge.
  • When silences naturally occur in face-to-face conversations, unless they’re prolonged, they aren’t really noticed. In virtual meetings, however, when there’s a silence it can cause anxiety because it leads us to worry that the technology we’re using has gone wrong.
  • For those of us who don’t like being in the spotlight (who can usually cope with face-to-face meetings because the spotlight is shared) virtual meetings can provide another source of anxiety because the sight of our own video feed acts as a constant reminder that we are, in fact, well and truly in the spotlight.
  • Even if we are very comfortable with being in the spotlight, it’s really hard not to be self-conscious when we have, in essence, a mirror being held up to us for an entire meeting.
  • Some people logging on to a virtual meeting from home might be struggling to separate their work and home lives. A commute is a very definite separation of those aspects of our lives and without it we can find it increasingly difficult to switch off from work.
  • Lastly, at the back of our minds somewhere is probably the reason that we now have virtual meetings and that might also cause some anxiety.

So what can we do to limit these factors?

  • Limit meetings to only those that are necessary.
  • Be aware when booking virtual meetings that they are more tiring than face-to-face meetings and make them shorter (after all you don’t have to wait for everyone to get their drink and pass the biscuits around before you start).
  • Make sure that if you have more than one virtual meeting a day, you have a break between them, even if it’s just to go to the loo or get a drink (or get a biscuit). Our brain needs a break every 90 minutes to process the information it has received during that time and if you don’t take that break, your brain won’t work as efficiently.
  • Hide your video feed if this is available to you. If you use ‘Zoom’, right-click your video feed and select ‘Hide self-view’ (this will mean you won’t be able to see your video feed, but others will still be able to). If you use Microsoft Teams, hover over your video feed, click on the three dots that appear and select ‘Hide for me’.
  • Switch off your camera feed altogether if you are attending a virtual event or conference that will require your attention for longer than an hour.
  • Either distance yourself from your screen or reduce the size of your meeting platform window to reduce the intensity of close-up eye contact.
  • If you are struggling from a lack of commute that separates your home and work life, have a think about whether there’s something that you could do at the start and end of each working day that could stand-in as your commute, e.g. walk the dog, go for a bike ride, wear a suit just during working hours – anything that can help you shift your mindset from home mode to work mode and vice versa.

With that in mind, let’s also not forget that virtual meetings bring a wealth of positives!  People who couldn’t physically attend meetings in the past would have had to miss out or catch-up by reading the minutes.  Now with virtual meetings, they are more likely to be able to attend and, if not, they can watch a recording of the meeting.  In addition, the tools that virtual meeting platforms offer, such as subtitles and the ‘Raised Hand’ and ‘Chat’ functions, help make virtual meetings much more inclusive than face-to-face meetings.  Furthermore, some people now have a much better work-life balance since virtual meetings were embraced and, let’s face it, virtual meetings also mean we don’t have to spend as much time claiming back expenses which nobody enjoyed, did they? (There’s no judgement from me if you did – I enjoy GMP reconciliations!)