Career Advice

Research Confirms Camera-On Virtual Meetings Are More Exhausting Than Camera-Off Ones—Here’s Why

Erica Sloan

Getty Images/The Good Brigade
Whether triggered by the drag of back-to-back meetings in the same setting (which is likely your home if you're a remote worker), the psychological toll of staring into a virtual mirror, or the mere inability to sense your coworkers’ physical presence, Zoom fatigue is real. For many, that truth is neither surprising nor new, given that it's been nearly a year and a half since stay-at-home orders prompted by the pandemic led many employees who could work remotely to sign online for endless-feeling video calls. But now, new research confirms what many folks may have sensed all along: The reason video calls are so exhausting has much to do with the video component itself.

To determine the specific role of the camera in video-conference exhaustion, the researchers assigned half of the small study's 103 participants (all remote employees at a health-care company) to keep their cameras on for all meetings during the first two work weeks of the study's duration and then switch to camera-off for the second two work weeks, and vice versa for the other half. At the end of each day, everyone was sent a survey asking them to rate, on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” whether they felt fatigued at that moment, felt engaged during meetings throughout the day, and felt empowered to speak up when they had something to say.

After analyzing more than 1,400 of those day-end surveys, the researchers found that keeping a camera on during meetings does, in fact, increase fatigue—and that result held true regardless of how many meetings a participant had in any given day or the length of said meetings.

Why video calls with camera-on are particularly exhausting—and why that matters:

These findings showing the camera's independent role in video-conference fatigue reflect the overall “being watched” pressure of being onscreen. This pressure, in turn, “enhances the need to manage impressions and directs focus inward, inducing fatigue,” the study authors write. As such, the stress around self-presentation (Do I look camera-ready? Is my background professional? Are the kids and pets out of view?) likely plays a major part in why video calls with a camera on are extra-exhausting.

It's worth noting that while this study only tested the camera-on scenario of being seen and seeing yourself, it is possible that turning off your camera's self-view—while still keeping your camera on for others to see you—would decrease this presentation pressure. That said, the up-close and invasive nature of a camera peering into your home or other personal space (rather than a company-sponsored office space that doesn't show your personal effects in the background) could theoretically still cause more fatigue than a fully camera-off situation.

"Those who had cameras on were potentially participating less than those not using cameras. This counters the conventional wisdom that cameras are required to be engaged in virtual meetings.” —Allison S. Gabriel, PhD

And in addition to the experience of fatigue, the study results also showed the potential for compromised performance as a result: Researchers found that higher ratings of fatigue among those who kept cameras on correlated with lower levels of reported engagement and voice participation. “So, in reality, those who had cameras on were potentially participating less than those not using cameras. This counters the conventional wisdom that cameras are required to be engaged in virtual meetings,” Allison S. Gabriel, PhD, lead author on the study and professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management, told Science Daily.

And across the board, the spike in fatigue was most profound in those camera-on participants who identified as women and new employees—most likely due to extra pressure on those groups, specifically, to prove competence and productivity. Because that fatigue was, again, linked to less engagement and voice participation, the practice of always being camera-on could be particularly detrimental for folks in those groups.

To that end, if your workplace has some camera flexibility, it may be well worth taking advantage of it and flipping your camera off for certain meetings (whether you fall in one of the above groups or not). And if there isn't currently much flexibility in place when it comes to camera-off meetings, consider sharing these results with your manager, who may be able to change certain policies to help nurture both employee health and engagement.

If you do ultimately need to keep your camera on for most or all of your meetings, though, consider these findings your cue to practice some additional Zoom fatigue-combatting care (like, zeroing in on qualities of yours that you like on-screen), as well as between-meeting recovery, like going for an afternoon walk, practicing a simple breathwork reset, or brewing yourself a re-energizing herbal tea. Whether you’re pushing back against that camera fatigue or even just the regular old afternoon slump, your body and brain will thank you for it.

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