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Is Zoom Burning All of Us Out?

Is Zoom Burning All of Us Out?

Are women more at-risk from mental health difficulties linked to Zoom than men?

My name is Dr Mia Eisenstadt and I’m a Research Associate at the Evidence-Based Practice Unit. I spend a lot of time thinking about about how we can improve our mental wellbeing in the current context and amidst a growing demand for mental health support (you can see a recent review of online interventions here). I’ve been involved in both innovation in child, adolescent and adult wellbeing, and the evaluation of new interventions, such as HeadStart, a national portfolio of interventions aimed to increased young people’s wellbeing in England. I’m the proud parent of a child and a cat.

This is the second blog on a three-part series on the timely topic of burnout for Inspire the Mind. This three-part series gives a rapid overview of the science. The first blog was an introduction to the science of burnout, and this current blog will cover the effects of Zoom on our brains and consider if it’s in fact bad for our mental health. The final part will then explore evidence-based strategies for tackling burnout.

Since the first blog, a number of readers have got in touch (thank you for reaching out) to ask about the specific effects of burnout on women. In response, we will also the possible differential effects of Zoom and burnout on men and women.

Are women more at risk of burnout then men? Source: Ekaterina Bolovtsova via Pexels

It’s part of the new normal of 2021 that for many industries, much of work is now performed online, via shared team working platforms and meetings via Zoom or Teams. With COVID cases on the rise in particular countries and the number of benefits of staying at home, remote working is likely to stay.

Zoom is incredibly economically efficient and reduces barriers to participation. From an environmental point of view, Zoom also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is more energy efficient. But increasingly, Zoom is burning employees out. Some companies have gone as far to enshrine Zoom-free Fridays. Why should a video call have a negative impact on our mental health?


1) We can experience “mirror anxiety”

Zoom can trigger a type of anxiety that is a consequence of hours of viewing our own reflection mediated by a screen. Research suggests that seeing ourselves on screens can trigger self-consciousness and self-criticism. Such feelings are more likely in women. Looking at our own reflection for too long (self-focusing) can increase the risk of depression. Whilst there are things we can do (e.g., “Hide Self-View” on Zoom), many work across multiple different platforms that represent our reflection in different formats from Zoom, to Teams, to Google Hangouts.


Why might seeing ourselves be stressful?

The media exerts immense pressure conveyed through adverts and magazines for women (and men) to conform to ideal body images. Media messages encourage women to be thinner, younger, less tired, have better skin and less wrinkles. Men are also pressured to conform to an ideal body type and receive a different set of messages. It is difficult to ignore advertising campaigns. Feeling dissatisfied with how we look can lead to bad moods and low self-esteem.

Anyone that suffers with specific issues in relation to body image, or body dysmorphia may find Zoom especially challenging. Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition where people focus too much on their flaws and may be involved in obsessive behaviours such as frequent mirror checking or grooming. People with BDD can feel strong emotions such as shame, self-hate and self-criticism. They can find it hard to leave the house and engage in day-to-day activities. People with BDD can spend long amounts of time looking in the mirror or avoid it completely.

Issues with body image are not well understood by many employers. For those that experience no concerns about their appearance, it may be hard to empathise with people that suffer with the condition. There have been a minority of cases of employees asking to turn their video off and such requests being met with an unfavorable response from HR.

Women are more likely to experience mirror anxiety on Zoom calls. Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

2) On a Zoom call, we are subjected to “hyper-gaze”

Being constantly watched by your colleagues when speaking or just listening increases the cognitive load on the brain.

We have to interpret non-verbal cues via a screen with the faces of our colleagues in small rectangular boxes — this takes more brain power, too. In fact, studies find that cooperation can be easier when we are assisted with cues that would be easier in person. Note, there is some research which suggests that Zoom calls may be experienced in different ways for neurodiverse than neurotypical people. For some people with autism, for example, less time is needed to process verbal cues and so such people can focus on the meaning of what is being said. Conversely, for some people with autism, the increased cognitive load and having to make small talk via a screen can be even harder to manage than in person interaction, as well as imposed eye contact which can also be challenging.


3) We are restricted to a desk and a computer with no shared physical space

As well as the challenge with long hours of sedentary behaviour, research suggests that a lack of contact with a regular geographic place, such as office, can contribute to a feeling of “placelessness” — an absence of belonging to a place. Feeling that we belong is good for our mental wellbeing. Office workplaces and universities are often a source of extra-curricular activities that further boost connectedness and belonging with others. By working from home, we can face increasing lone working and possible isolation. Loneliness has negative effects on mental health.


4) There are less informal opportunities for care for one another

A lot of caring for our colleagues, or having a brief catch up, occurs in the spaces in between, a chat with a colleague in a toilet, checking in in the lobby with another colleague who is having a tough day after a meeting. These chance, corridor, occurrences are more likely in person and can be lacking from home offices.


Zoom increases cognitive load, what is it?

Cognitive load refers to the amount of information that we can store in our working memory at any one time. The theory of cognitive load was formulated by John Sweller in the 1980s. Sweller argued that educationalists should not overwhelm students with information so that they could retain the important information being taught. With Zoom, we are processing seeing several faces via a screen, so we may be trying to give a presentation whilst also trying to gauge what others are thinking mediated by small rectangular boxes of faces.


Are women more at risk than men?

There is some evidence women are more negatively affected by Zoom through being both more affected by hyper-gaze, as well as scheduling longer meetings and taking less breaks, though more research is needed. In any case, women are more at greater risk from burnout, a range of studies show that women have been disproportionally effected by the pandemic. The Hartford Survey found that as many as 68% of American female workers reported burnout, as compared to 52% of males. In the graph below featured in a recent McKinsey report, women reported higher levels of burnout, chronic stress, and exhaustion than men, across several levels of seniority.

Women in the Workplace, 2021, Leanin.org and McKinsey, 2021

In the context of #WFH (Working From Home), women are increasingly face a double or triple shift. When work ends, domestic and family responsibilities begin. Or, when working from home, women may be managing two sets of responsibilities in parallel.

By way of recap, though not a medical condition, burnout that results from work stress is increasingly recognised as a major public health problem at this stage of the pandemic. Burnout has many definitions but there are three widely agreed aspects:

  1. Emotional exhaustion (e.g.,-feeling empty and drained)

  2. Depersonalisation (a growing negative attitude to the nature of work or the organisation itself)

  3. Feeling less personally accomplished and less professionally effective.

Burnout involves emotional exhaustion, why is that any different from just exhaustion?

Emotional exhaustion refers to feeling emotionally worn-out from chronic stress from the personal or work domain, or both. Generally, symptoms can include lack of motivation, disturbed sleep, irritability, apathy, headaches, difficulties with concentration, irrational anger, increased cynicism, dread, and depression.

Women increasingly face a double or triple shift, and in particular working mothers. Source: Sarah Chai via Pexels

In the world of work and business, it may be unpopular to discuss the mundane aspects of daily life such as taking a child to the dentist, or, a PTA meeting, but these aspects are all part of the reality of working parenthood.


Another perspective on burnout

However, whilst it may be tempting to say that women experience more burnout, the picture may be more complex. Whilst there is no doubt that many women have more responsibilities and face more discrimination, there are different components of burnout and experiences vary. A meta-analysis conducted in 2010 that analysed 183 studies found that women are more emotionally exhausted than men, whilst men tend to experience more depersonalisation. The authors of the paper felt that in 2010 women were not more at risk of burnout, but of emotional exhaustion. This conclusion may not still be still relevant in the context of the pandemic, however and more research is needed.


Burnout: what can we do about it? — Part 3

In the third and final blog of this three-part series for Inspire the Mind, we will look at what the evidence says about what is actually effective in beating burnout.

The internet is full of advice aiming to tackle burnout, but what strategies are tried and tested? What can employers do to create environments that support positive wellbeing and mental health and reduce the risk of more of the workforce burning out? What can we do as individuals do to reduce the risk of wearing out our valuable hearts and minds?

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