Since the pandemic began in 2020, Zoom video teleconferences have become a new normal for many people’s working life. Now a study finds that these virtual meetings exhaust the brain more than face-to-face communication.
Lockdowns due to COVID-19 led to skyrocketing adoption of Zoom, Skype and other videoconferencing tools as substitutes for face-to-face meetings. For example, as the new research points out, the number of Zoom.us monthly visits went from 71.6 million in December 2019 to an all-time high of 2.8 billion in October 2020, falling to 943 million in March 2023.
This rise in remote work and online learning has revealed a phenomenon often dubbed “Zoom fatigue,” a feeling of exhaustion linked with videoconferencing.
Previous research depended on questionnaires. The new study examined the effects of videoconferencing directly on the brain and heart.
“The personal implications of Zoom fatigue extend far beyond mere tiredness,” says study co–senior author René Riedl, an information systems researcher at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria in Steyr and Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria. “Individuals grapple with increased stress levels, a reduction in productivity, and a pervasive sense of disconnection.”
In addition, “On a broader social scale, the consequences materialize as a potential deterioration in the quality of communication and collaboration, impacting both professional and personal relationships,” says study co–senior author Gernot Müller-Putz, a biomedical engineer at Graz University of Technology, in Austria. “The absence of nuanced nonverbal cues in virtual interactions inhibits the richness of communication, making it challenging for participants to fully engage and connect in a meaningful way.”
Previous research into videoconference fatigue depended on questionnaires. In the new study, Riedl, Müller-Putz, and their colleagues examined the effects of videoconferencing on the brain and heart.
The scientists had 35 university students all take part in 50-minute lectures that were held both in person in a conventional lecture hall and online via videoconferencing. The researchers analyzed the effects of these meetings using electroencephalography (EEG) and electrocardiography (ECG). These methods noninvasively record brain and heart activity using electrodes stuck on the head and chest, respectively. They also gave the volunteers questionnaires asking about fatigue and mood.
“We found that after 50 minutes of videoconferencing, significant changes in physiological and subjective fatigue could be observed.”
—René Riedl, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
The brain and heart readings suggested that videoconferencing led to significantly greater signs of fatigue, sadness, drowsiness, and negative feelings, as well as less attention and engagement, than a face-to-face lecture. The questionnaires also showed the volunteers felt significantly more tired, drowsy, and fed up and less lively, happy, and active from videoconferencing than face-to-face sessions.
When it comes to finding ways to reduce videoconferencing fatigue, “individuals and organizations can adopt practices such as scheduling regular breaks,” Riedl says. “Based on our research results, we recommend a break after 30 minutes, because we found that after 50 minutes of videoconferencing, significant changes in physiological and subjective fatigue could be observed. Moreover, utilizing features like ‘speaker view’ to mitigate the intensity of perceived continuous eye contact could be helpful.”
Videoconferencing tool developers may also investigate “designing platforms that not only facilitate natural communication, but also replicate the nuanced dynamics of face-to-face interactions, thereby reducing the cognitive load associated with virtual meetings,” Müller-Putz says. However, “in our opinion, it is not possible to fully replicate natural face-to-face interactions, for which human evolution has endowed us with specific capabilities, in particular those related to brain function.”
All in all, the scientists do note that it is unrealistic to completely abstain from videoconferencing. Still, they say these findings suggest that videoconferencing should be viewed not as a wholesale substitute for face-to-face communication, but as a complementary tool.
“It is important to underscore how a supportive work culture, rooted in understanding the nuances of virtual interactions, can substantially alleviate the impact of prolonged reliance on digital communication platforms,” Müller-Putz says. “Videoconferencing is just one form of electronic communication. Several other forms, like email communication, social-collaboration platforms in organizations, the extensive use of mobile phones, and communication via avatars in the metaverse, should be studied more extensively in the future. In particular, we recommend investigating the various implications of the use of such communication forms, including stress, cognitive workload, well-being, health, development, satisfaction, and productivity, among others.”
One potential criticism of this work is how much these findings might apply beyond the context of university lectures. “Other research groups are invited to replicate our findings in other contexts, such as the business context,” Riedl says. “Moreover, future studies could also complement our findings by the use of other neuroscience and physiological measurement tools.”
The scientists detailed their findings online 26 October in the journal Scientific Reports.