What is meeting fatigue?
Around 15 million people in Germany alone have an office job. As the coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of ending, the majority of them have already spent weeks or even months working from home, either more or all of the time. Team discussions and regular meetings have moved online – via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts Meet, and Microsoft Teams – and as a result, business is truly booming for providers of video conferencing tools. But the regular virtual meetings definitely have repercussions. One personal feeling – shared by many employees who are working from home – is that virtual meetings seem to be much more exhausting and energy-sapping than face-to-face meetings.
The phenomenon of increasing fatigue and exhaustion resulting from the intensive use of video conferencing systems applies in general to an increasing exhaustion caused by being online – the body’s response to the stress of the new psychological challenges that go hand-in-hand with the significant growth in the virtual meeting culture, whether via Skype, Slack, Hangouts, Teams or Zoom. Fatigue can set in in any case.
What are the consequences of meeting fatigue for employees and companies?
A survey of office workers conducted by the Ludwigshafen University of Business and Society in late summer 2020 looked at what the symptoms of meeting fatigue are, how widespread the phenomenon is, and how intensive use of video conferencing systems impacts people, both mentally and physically. Around 60 percent of survey respondents said that they had already experienced the phenomenon themselves, with 15 percent of those even describing ongoing stress and adverse effects as a result of meeting fatigue.
The survey also focused on the direct and indirect consequences of meeting fatigue. Survey respondents reported an increase in the following symptoms:
- reduced ability to concentrate,
- increased feelings of impatience and irritability,
- a lack of balance, and
- headache and back pain.
In addition, some of the respondents also reported visual and sleep disturbances, as well as increased anxiety. This creates a twofold problem for companies: not only do online fatigue and declining concentration negatively affect productivity and the quality of deliverables from employees working from home, but the lack of personal contact and communication also puts working relationships and team spirit under severe strain.
The brain under constant stress – why video conferences are so exhausting
Meeting fatigue is a phenomenon with a whole range of triggers and critical factors. Generally speaking, it can be as simple as some participants having unexpected problems when they dial in, struggling with technical issues during the meeting (Internet connection, microphone, camera, etc.), or constantly being dropped from the video conference. As well as being annoying, stressful and frustrating for the people affected, it also has a significant detrimental effect on the dialog flow during online meetings and means that everyone else has to keep refocusing their attention.
It’s all about attention: you have to work extra hard mentally during video conferences because it is harder to recognize non-verbal communication and your brain is constantly trying to fill those information gaps. Then you need to factor in distraction by movements in your field of vision, which your reflexes are programmed to register and which is particularly an issue when there are many participants at the meeting. The efforts that your brain has to make are clearly illustrated by a typical scenario with several virtual participants in gallery view, displays that are constantly jumping from one thing to the next, as well as jerky images and audio delays – all requiring you to keep shifting your attention, which is hugely stressful over time.
You also feel increasingly self-conscious about how you appear on camera, which causes both further distraction and additional stress. How do you look to everyone else? Does your outfit fit right and would it seem more professional if you looked straight into the camera instead of at the screen? Many people find it hard not to regularly check on themselves, which repeatedly drags their attention away from the meeting itself.
High levels of mental stress during online meetings: multitasking as a stress factor
Constantly trying to multi task – which is far easier to succumb to in video conferences than face-to-face meetings – is yet another source of unwanted long-term stress caused by constantly switching back and forth. You quickly bring up the dates here, send a brief message to a colleague on your second screen there, then skim over incoming emails – then you realize you’ve only half listened to the next item on the agenda and you have to try and focus your attention all over again. You may be tempted by the alleged higher productivity and pushed into multitasking, but factor in the inevitable meeting fatigue and the dialog between people during the meeting and it is actually counterproductive.
Practical guide with valuable tips for video conferences
Video conferences and virtual meetings are here to stay, even once the coronavirus crisis is over. So, the million-dollar question is: how can we work together to harness the undisputed benefits of digital communication tools in a way that doesn’t overload participants, but instead facilitates dialog during online meetings and is as stress-free and productive as possible? Our free guide to holding and moderating virtual meetings therefore contains not only useful tips on video conferences, but also effective instructions that help you to organize productive meetings and focus on combating stress and strain.