How to help your brain survive virtual work

How to help your brain survive virtual work

I’ve written about Zoom Gloom in a previous post (see here) but since issues with remote work are only getting worse, I believe it’s good to revisit that subject. A recent article in Nature revealed some depressing figures about academic burnout during the pandemic. Stress and anxiety, caused by remote work, research delays and childcare obligations, have risen markedly during the pandemic. A staggering 70 % of 1,122 polled US faculty members reported feeling stressed in 2020 – more than double the amount of those polled in 2019.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: remote work per se is not the villain here. The repercussions to our social life because of the ongoing pandemic and the way in which we just moved to virtual work without thinking how we need to modify how we work, are some of the main causes of the steep decline in our wellbeing at the moment.

Although we are lucky to be living in times of Zoom, Teams and other tools that make remote work even possible, these tools are still so new to us that our brains are having a hard time adapting. We’ve gotten used to working in a specific way. Although changes have always been present (fields to factory, factory to office, paper to computer) no previous change compares to the speed and force of the one we experienced in 2020. It takes a lot of effort to learn new routines and it takes a long time for the brain to adapt to new circumstances. So it’s not a surprise that we are having difficulties finding suitable ways of working and feeling exhausted after the work day.

All hope is not lost though, even if it feels like you’ve tried everything during this year (!) of remote work. There are things you can do to combat the toll virtual meetings and remote work is taking on your body and mind.

Understanding why you are feeling the way you are and why you are struggling, might help you to cope better with the situation. Also learning and understanding that others are struggling too, might bring a sense of “We’re in this together and we’ll survive this together”.

Why are Zoom meetings so taxing?

According to research, there are 4 reasons why virtual meetings make us exhausted. (I’ve also shared these in a tweet a few weeks back.)

  1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense. In a normal meeting you can glance around, but in a video meeting you are constantly looking at everyone. Your brain interprets this constant closeness of other humans’ faces as threatening.
  2. Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing. I don’t think this one needs any explanation.
  3. Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility. Movement is limited during video meetings, decreasing cognitive capabilities and increasing musculoskeletal disorders.
  4. The cognitive load is much higher in video chats. The cognitive load of video meetings is high because of less nonverbal cues.

Why is remote work so exhausting?

  1. Constant interruptions. We get bombarded from several different platforms on several different devices non-stop. It takes time (and effort) for our brain to refocus every time we switch our attention to something else.
  2. Poor meeting practices. Because we are still not used to meeting online all the time, we haven’t adapted good virtual meeting practices. People may not feel included or they may feel disconnected from the group, participants may not understand the meaning of the meeting, there may be a lot of technical difficulties, and people might have meetings back to back with no break in between to even stand up and get a glass of water.
  3. Bad work hygiene and ergonomics. We have difficulties recovering from work because we might not get detached enough if the home office is visible all the time and in the same space we spend our free time. I read on Twitter that “We are no longer working from home. We are living at work” and if that’s not an appropriate way of describing this, I don’t know what is. In addition, we move around a lot less and stare at the screen all the time, which is bad for both body and brain.
  4. Lack of spontaneous and “normal” social interaction. We need other people and this need is not satisfied by staring at them through a screen.

Try these tips to combat the fatigue

In a meeting:

  1. Exit fullscreen and minimize face size to reduce the intencity of the interaction
  2. Give yourself an “audio only” break where you turn off the camera.
  3. Move around during the meeting – preferably with the camera off to minimize distractions for others
  4. Hide self-view to stop looking at yourself all the time.

At work:

  1. Focus on one thing at a time. Minimize interruptions, use the Pomodoro technique or close your social media and your e-mail for a certain amount of time. Be selfish, learn to say no to interruptions.
  2. Take frequent breaks throughout the day. Rest your eyes on something else than a screen and remember to move around.
  3. Favor 45-minute meetings. This allows for 15-minute breaks in between, if the days are packed with meetings.
  4. Separate chitchat from the actual agenda. Organize platforms for both strict decision-making and informal chats about pets. People might not want to combine these into the same meeting, especially if efficiency is of essence.
  5. Keep one day or at least part of the day meeting-free. Block out time for creative work, for planning or for routine tasks that you are unable to get done during a day of meeting roulette.
  6. Try to organize your work space so that you get detached from work during non-work time.
  7. Organize get togethers, both virtually and in person (e.g. outside for safety reasons) to keep up the team spirit.
  8. Respect others. Respect other people’s time, privacy and right to breaks.

Adapted from https://www.ttl.fi/tyopiste/auta-aivojasi-etatyossa-keskity-yhteen-asiaan-kerrallaan/ and https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-02-fatigue-simple.html.

Also check out this great article: https://www.toptal.com/insights/future-of-work/remote-not-re-moat

Read my previous post for more tips: https://www.mariatornroos.fi/2020/09/21/zoom-gloom/

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  1. Give your brain a break! - PhD Pathfinder

    […] previous posts, I’ve written about what virtual and remote work does to our wellbeing and productivity. […]

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