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Stateside Podcast: Zoom fatigue: The struggle is real

UM professor of psychology and linguistics, Julie Boland, shares her research on Zoom fatigue, plus strategies to avoid it.
Sharon McCutcheon
UM professor of psychology and linguistics, Julie Boland, shares her research on Zoom fatigue, plus strategies to avoid it.

If you’re like most of us, trying to connect online during a global pandemic, you probably have a bittersweet relationship with a program called Zoom. It’s helpful, but also exhausting.

University of Michigan professor of psychology and linguistics, Julie Boland, calls this sensation Zoom fatigue. It’s an issue remote workers and students are quite familiar with. Part of the problem stems from difficulty finding a turn to speak, disrupting the natural flow of in-person conversation.

“Response times were about three times longer when they conversed over Zoom as opposed to in-person,” Boland and her team of three undergraduate students concluded about their study participants.

“The pauses between speakers in, like, a general two-party English conversation is only, on average, about 200 milliseconds,” Boland said. “And that's faster than we can do pretty much anything.”

She explained that, in order to respond so quickly when in-person, scientists think one conversational partner’s brain waves synchronize with the pace at which the other partner is speaking.

“This sort of automatic syncing of your brainwaves doesn't work as well over Zoom because, in addition to the kind of normal variability in speech rate, you have this additional variability caused by electronic transmission lag.”

She continued to say that response times are just one factor contributing to Zoom fatigue.

“It's probably the combination of a lot of different things,” Boland said. “It can include that we don't make the same kind of eye contact, for example, or that non visual cues don't work as well, because maybe you don't see as much of the person's body.”

As for combatting Zoom fatigue and keeping your break sharp, Boland offered some advice.

“I'd suggest experimenting with the parameters,” she said. “Turn the cameras off. That may help. You could try connecting over the phone instead of by Zoom. Some of the time, I find that switching back and forth between the phone and Zoom feels better than Zoom all the time.”

Throughout her studies, Boland also observed a natural adaptation to Zoom fatigue that helps remote workers communicate during online meetings. But it might be the last thing you would guess: speaking for longer amounts of time.

“If part of the problem and zoom fatigue is the sort of extra stress over deciding when to start speaking after your partner does, taking longer turns is a way to alleviate some of that stress because there's less of that switching back and forth. So that's something that people seem to naturally do without even thinking about it.”

And another unexpected suggestion of hers evokes the animal world:

“I would oftentimes have a pet popping up while I was teaching, and my students actually kind of liked that I think.”

Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music byBlue Dot Sessions.

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Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.
Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.