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Video calls intensify everyday communication. (Image: Getty)
  • A recent Stanford study explains how video-calling can be more taxing than in person communication.
  • Close, face-to-face, on-screen meetings can set off the same physiological reaction as a threat or attack.
  • Minimising the size of faces on screen can help combat stress.
  • Visit Business Insider for more stories.

Staring at faces on screen all day could set off the same physiological reaction as a threat or attack, according to a recent study from Stanford University.

Jeremy Bailenson, director of the university's virtual human interaction lab, published his take on what's driving Zoom fatigue in a peer-reviewed report, citing academic psychology, communication and human-computer interaction research to support his theories. 

"The brain is particularly attentive to faces, and when we see large ones, we interpret them as being close. Our 'fight or flight' reflex responds," Bailenson told Insider.

While video-conferencing is crucial to business during this time of social distancing, Bailenson's research suggests the medium can be more taxing and intensifies everyday work communication.

On-screen faces can be too close for comfort

Bailenson said that, while on Zoom, the faces of co-workers and colleagues are very close in proximity - a space usually reserved for those closest to us.

"From an evolutionary standpoint, if there was a very large human face close by to you, and it was staring right in your eyes, you were likely going to engage in conflict or mating. Neither responses are a good fit for a work meeting," Bailenson told Insider.

All eyes on you, all the time 

With in-person meetings, usually only the speaker is subjected to the gaze of their audience. With Zoom, even if you aren't speaking, everyone is constantly looking at you. 

"This is similar to being in a crowded subway car while being forced to stare at the person you are standing very close to, instead of looking down or at your phone," Bailenson wrote in his report.

Imagine bringing a mirror to work every day

Seeing your reflection all day might be fun for selfie fans, but it can be unnerving for anxious folks. Bailenson explained this level of sustained self-monitoring can be stressful. 

"In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly - so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback - you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy," he said. 

Working from home on a screen limits social rewards

In-office dynamics make it possible to take a break from the screen and grab lunch with a colleague as a treat. When you're at home in front of the computer all day, the line between work and leisure is blurred.

Moradeyo Adeyi, a psychotherapist for the Brooklyn Center for Psychotherapy, told Insider that the monotony can obstruct the brain's risk and reward processing.

"Inherently our brain expects to have a risk and reward. We're going to work really hard in hopes of having some type of reward," Adeyi described.

"That could be like, 'I worked for an hour. I had this meeting. And now I have 20 minutes to get coffee with my coworker,'"she said.

With no change in scenery to break up a busy day of video calls, work can feel relentless. 

"The fact that we are just constantly on call, there is no reward. So our brain doesn't really know what to do with that," she explained.

Tips to combat Zoom fatigue

To give your eyes and mind a rest while working, Bailenson recommends right-clicking your image on Zoom and selecting "hide self-view" to stop you from constantly self-monitoring. 

He also encourages managers to discern whether a meeting needs to be on-camera or if some calls can be productive using audio only.

Also, try shrinking your Zoom screen. 

"Instead of having it take up the entire screen, minimise it to about one third of the screen. Then, the faces are no longer huge when they stare at you," Bailenson recommends.

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