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Cambridge University Science Magazine
As humans, we are primed for communication. When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened major disruption to our day-to-day lives, videoconference platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams launched onto the scene to rescue society amidst intense and brutal social lockdowns. These platforms have continued to thrive ever since, and it is clear they are here to stay. With business shifting towards home offices and students attending lectures from the comfort of bed, the convenience of this revolution has not gone unnoticed, along with the cuts in commuting times and travel-related emissions.

However, we cannot reap the benefits without incurring a few penalties. We’ve all experienced the mental drain of videoconference fatigue (Zoom fatigue), an inevitable symptom of spending too much of our time on these platforms. However, the evidence for videoconference fatigue has so far been hazy, based largely on self-assessment of fatigue. Yet the experience is so widespread that something more significant must be at play.

A study by an Austrian group has now demonstrated what really happens to our minds and bodies as videoconference fatigue sets in. The authors set out to compare objective measures of fatigue in the nervous and cardiovascular systems in a videoconference and a face-to-face setting. Their findings back up the subjective reports and establish that Zoom fatigue is a real cognitive condition.

In the study, 35 students attended a 50-minute engineering lecture that was delivered either in-person or as a pre-recorded online video. They filled in questionnaires to assess mood before and after the lecture as well as a ‘Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue’ questionnaire after. As expected, the participants reported that they were more worn and drained, with reduced mood, after the videoconference lecture compared to the face-to-face equivalent.

They were monitored consistently throughout the lecture by electroencephalogram (EEG) to record background brain activity. This activity can be broken down into different components; generally, higher frequencies indicate a more aroused state. The data revealed increased activity in lower-frequency bands, in particular those that are fingerprints of a lack of mental engagement and focus (mind wandering). This agreed with the personal reports of fatigue from the questionnaires.

As another neural measure of fatigue, before and after the lecture, the participants took part in a so-called ‘oddball paradigm’ task. The researchers showed them pictures of a target stimulus (faces) mixed with occasional ‘odd-ones-out’ such as landscapes. These ‘oddball’ stimuli evoke a signature pattern of brain activity called an event-related potential (ERP) that an EEG can pick up. By looking at the patterns of ERPs in brain recordings, researchers can infer attention levels; for example, the amplitudes of certain parts of the signal are reduced when fatigued. They found significant changes to the ERP signals after the videoconference lecture, with more of the hallmarks of fatigue compared with the face-to-face lecture.

Finally, the authors monitored the activity of the heart of the participants throughout the lecture. Fatigue comes with a lowering of heart rate and increased heart rate variability. These factors indicate that the nervous system shifts from sympathetic (that triggers the typical fight-or-flight response) to the counterbalancing parasympathetic. By these measures, fatigue increased across both conditions, but this was more pronounced in the videoconference setting. The cardiovascular tests therefore supported both the subjective experiences and the mental fatigue.

This study adds a great deal to a field that has far-reaching consequences for society. The global market for videoconferencing technologies is thriving; reports predict it will grow grow by 10% each year to a projected sum of $65 billion by 2032, driven by consumer uptake in fields such as business and education. It is imperative that we understand and consider the implications for our physical and mental wellbeing. By providing neurological and physiological data to support the existence and prevalence of videoconference fatigue, this research provides valuable evidence to back up what has long been an overlooked complaint of modern day employees and students. It also provides an evidence-based method to evaluate future interventions designed to combat videoconference fatigue, such as interspersing sessions with regular breaks.

What this means is that we should not fully turn our backs on times gone past, where business belongs in the office and education in classrooms and lecture halls. There is place for both in a hybrid model, with each providing their own advantages and drawbacks. The pandemic may have sparked a huge change in our daily lives, but we must now balance our time spent interacting in the physical and the digital worlds to capture the best of both.

Rachel McKeown is the BlueSci President.

Reference: Reidl et al. (2023) - Videoconference fatigue from a neurophysiological perspective: experimental evidence based on electroencephalography (EEG) and electrocardiography (ECG)