Zoom meetings and kitchen table home offices seem here to stay. But our familiarity with this new way of working doesn’t make it any less exhausting.
Working from home has created a whole new class of mental and physical stressors that affect both wellbeing and work productivity, according to Leyland Pitt, PhD, a marketing professor at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, and the author of a recent report in the journal Business Horizons on applying mindfulness practices to cope with work-from-home weariness.
One of those stressors is the ubiquitous use of video conferencing to keep remote workers connected and engaged. But at what cost? A new article in Technology, Mind, and Behavior explains Zoom fatigue and why meeting digitally can be way more draining than in-person. Director of the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab and author of the article, Jeremy Bailenson, PhD, theorizes that Zoom fatigue is a result of excessive amounts of close-up eye contact, which we normally go out of our way to avoid in-person. “On Zoom, behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers,” writes Bailenson. It can be intense. Then add the fact that you are working harder to communicate on Zoom, where the nonverbal cues we unconsciously and consciously use to express ourselves are either out of frame or harder to detect. Plus, science tells us that staring at ourselves much of the day prompts continuous self-evaluation that has been shown to have negative effects, including rumination and depression.
Can Mindfulness Help?
“I had been skeptical about mindfulness as a technique to enhance mental wellbeing,” says Pitt. “Then the pandemic hit, and I found myself spending hours in front of a Zoom screen, realizing that this type of online work brings on a different kind of fatigue and work-induced stress.” His report co-author, Mariana Toniolo-Barrios, a PhD candidate at SFU in organizational behavior, asked him to try out a few mindfulness exercises she was developing. “For the first time, I realized that there are simple, easy to follow, practical, and very useful techniques that actually make me feel better,” says Pitt.
Here, the practices Pitt and Toniolo-Barrios recommend to create boundaries between work life and personal life, minimize distractions, and beat Zoom fatigue and burnout:
Since the lines between work and personal time have become blurred, mentally disconnecting from job-related tasks has become increasingly difficult, resulting in stressful work rumination that can impact your mental health and the quality of life—much like the rumination that is symptomatic of depression. This psychological attachment to work doesn’t allow you to rest, recover, and reset—all of which can help you maintain both work-life balance and work productivity.
Mindfulness practices anchor your attention in the present, helping stop thoughts about what happened at work in the past or what will happen at work in the future. “In addition, [mindfulness] techniques allow one to see situations in a more objective manner, and consequently become less caught up in repetitive negative thoughts,” writes Pitt.
A Mindfulness Practice for Disconnecting From Work
Pitt recommends a simple body scan to help you get out of your head and back into the present moment:
Find a comfortable seat and take a few slow long breaths and close your eyes. Use your imagination to envision a band of light circling the top of your head. As this exercise progresses, the band of light will slowly move down your body, and as it does, become aware of the different physical sensations you’re feeling beneath the band of light. Move the band of light slowly from the top to the bottom of your body, noticing any sensations (e.g. pain, itching, tingling) on the different parts of your body.
The more present and focused we are at work, the less time we may have to spend at the computer and on video conferencing platforms. Because mindfulness asks you to keep your awareness in the present, research has shown it can improve attention, helping you to get work tasks done with more acuity and in less time.
A Mindfulness Practice for Finding Focus During Work Hours
Pitt and Toniolo-Barrios use this grounding exercise to help bring their attention back to the body, the present, and, ultimately, work:
Whenever you catch yourself being distracted by the mess in your living room or a home-school upset, take care of what needs to be addressed and then identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Repeat this process as many times as needed, until you feel less scattered and more focused.
“By anchoring one’s attention to the present moment, as well as identifying, without judgement, the events that are happening in one’s surroundings, one will likely become less reactive to distractions and less emotionally involved with them,” writes Pitt in his latest journal article, “Mindfulness and the Challenges of Working from Home in Times of Crisis.”
Knowing When to Take a Break
Zoom fatigue is officially a phenomenon. It’s the emotional and physical drain caused by video conferencing, explains Pitt. The trick to managing zoom fatigue, or screen fatigue in general, is to log off before you are completely exhausted. Otherwise recovery can take its toll—time- and energy-wise. “It is critical that employees modify their behavior preemptively with the goal of avoiding too much screen exposure,” writes Pitt. But even PItt acknowledges that’s no easy task. You need to be highly attuned to physical and emotional signs of strain, and you have to self-regulate, stepping away for even a minute, to allow for rest and reset.
Pitt also emphasizes the “50 minute rule,” coined by Adam Gazzaley, PhD, the founder of Neuroscape—a research center focused on attention, memory, perception, neuroplasticity, and cognitive development—and a neuroscience professor at the University of California San Francisco. According to Gazzaley, we need a 10 minute break for every 50 minutes on screens to avoid fatigue from the light, moving images, and even the white noise from the computer, plus all of the background distractions our brains have been tracking while we try to concentrate on the meeting. During your 10 minute break, it’s critical to step away from technology, phone included. Instead, take a short walk, get a drink, or find stillness and try out a mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness can be both a break and a way to become more in touch with when you need a break.
Enter mindfulness (again). “Mindfulness facilitates personal awareness of physical being and emotions, and this makes individuals better equipped to regulate themselves,” writes Pitt.
Check In with Yourself Using this Simple Mindfulness Practice
He recommends a 3-Minute Breathing Space meditation a few times during the workday to help you become increasingly aware of signs of fatigue (which may manifest as sluggishness, brain fog, being highly distracted, or being stuck in negative thinking) so you can sense what’s coming and take more breaks as needed.
- Step 1: Ask yourself: “What thoughts are going through my mind?”, “What feelings are here?”, “What body sensations are here right now?”
- Step 2: Direct your attention to the physical sensation of the breath. Use the focus on your breath to anchor yourself in the present moment.
- Step 3: In addition to the sensation of the breath, now expand your awareness to your body as a whole, to your posture and facial expression, and to any sensations that may emerge.
If you are still finding it hard to step away when you need to, practice a longer mindfulness meditation during your lunch break.