The pandemic has brought about so many changes to the work environment and keeping up with the constant changes (and virtual meetings) of the “new normal” is causing many of us to suffer from yet another level of fatigue — virtual fatigue
Words by Maki Molapo
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the word “fatigue” has had more than one meaning as other terms were added to it. For example, there’s “Covid-fatigue”, which Psychology Today defines as, “a complex of emotions that include boredom, loneliness, sadness, frustration, anxiety, fear, anger, and resentment, all brought on by the loss of activities and social relations produced by pandemic restrictions”. This is evident in how, unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, some of us have become lax in our hygiene practices — such as washing hands for 20 seconds, sanitising (we even complain about this when we go shopping) — and observing general social distancing rules. Added to this, is all the information we have to consume about the virus, especially with the discovery of new variants, as well as the latest updates about the vaccines. With this in mind, “Zoom fatigue” (also known as virtual fatigue) has joined our vocabulary list.
Occupational health and safety practitioner Dumisani Mhaga defines fatigue in the workplace as “extreme tiredness from mental or physical exhaustion or illness caused by repeated variations of stress”. Due to the pandemic, Mhaga says the social restrictions we’ve had to adapt to have had an impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. He adds that the pandemic has forced us to unlearn and learn new ways of communicating unlike what we were used to pre-pandemic.
A year and a month ago, going to meetings sometimes included a couple of breaks but because of government’s imposed social distancing rules, video calls have become the order of the day. This means we’ve had to rely on Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams to communicate. But Mhaga says this has an effect on our psychological wellbeing because we are constantly stationed in one position for long hours, the higher levels of concentration and our use of laptops also results in strained eyes.
Mhaga explains that virtual fatigue is brought about by the repetitive cycle we’ve found ourselves in under new working conditions as per the new normal. He says this causes psychological stress. According to Healthline, “key signs of burnout also include: forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating, difficulty maintaining relationships and being present with loved ones, frustration and irritability with co-workers, physical symptoms like muscle tension, pain, fatigue, and insomnia”. Furthermore, Zoom fatigue presents itself in similar ways to burnout, except it contributes to overall burnout. Mhaga says some symptoms of virtual fatigue include, “feeling tired during the call or at the end of your work day, daydreaming during the meeting, eyestrain or eye irritation that was not pre-existing, regular headaches and migraines, constant exhaustion and anxiety of turning on your camera”.
Mhaga emphasises that while virtual meetings are the only option we currently have, and considering that demands in every industry vary, there are other ways of limiting interactions while ensuring that deadlines are met. “Try not to schedule back-to-back meetings, instead reduce the number of meetings you have in a day and spread them out to designated days during the week. Even so, allocate time for each meeting and stick to it. Be flexible with the option of participants showing their face, for example, the one presenting can turn on their camera but others who are not can turn it off,” he advises.
So far, there’s been reports of a company that has gone the extra mile in alleviating their employees’ fatigue. According to Forbes, investment banking company, Citigroup plans to implement “Zoom-Free Fridays” from next month after listening to its employees. The company says this is in an effort to “stop workdays from becoming non-stop due to video meetings”. The bank additionally stressed, “that calls and meetings will not be permitted to be scheduled on weekends or outside of the standard work hours that existed prior to the pandemic”.
Mhaga says he recommends this type of break and the flexibility. He adds that having conversations with your employees or the team to ask about where they think [the business] can improve and what ideas they have will prove to be effective under these trying times. “The feedback, whether it’s using a suggestion box, will help come up with action plans for the issues that have been raised,” Mhaga says, adding that this will help businesses have engaged employees. He, however, cautions against interpreting these problems and suggestions as complaints but rather to consider them as areas of improvement with the objective of boosting employee morale and showing that you value them.