By Karina Margit Erdelyi

Is the Picture Getting in the Way?

Video chats have enabled us to WFH en masse, a tech rescue for our work lives. But our new normal brings a twist: increased screen time has also corresponded with increased anxiety, and stress among men and women alike. As we ease into the emerging new normal, people are increasingly asking: “is it rude to be audio-only?”

Let’s sing praises (for the moment) to the video chats and apps that have facilitated positive (dare we say, even life-affirming) connections during the past 18 months. Families were able to celebrate weddings (and mourn deaths), grandparents could remain a part of their developing grandchildren’s lives, and co-workers could feel like they are (still) part of a team. But, while we glory in the good, there is a nefarious side to all this visibility. According to research from the UK, increased screen time has had invited a parallel increase in anxiety, stress, and body dissatisfaction among men and women.

And mental health professionals concur that video call-exacerbated body image issues are on the rise, especially among those who may have struggled with self-image issues pre-pandemic. Some are terming this “Zoom dysmorphia,” and dermatologists have been the beneficiaries of this increased self-consciousness as demand for cosmetic procedures, particularly Botox and injectables, has risen dramatically over the past year. Even those with a healthier sense of self-image find that too much “on-air” time can skew their thinking as the number of hours we spend looking in a digital mirror continues to rise.

Even as we emerge from the height of the pandemic, flexible policies and tech will be key to creating a level playing field for folks whether they WFH or WFO (work from office) — which is to say, that even if you begin to go into work, chances are you’ll largely continue communicating with your colleagues and clients via tech-driven modalities like video meeting much — if not most — of the time.

Here’s why that matters: in a word — fatigue. In addition to the perils of staring at oneself while trying to engage in a work or personal meeting, being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face conversation because we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like tone and pitch of voice, body language, facial expressions. Paying more attention takes more energy — and can mean more fatigue.

So, how can we alleviate Zoom fatigue and dysmorphia?

In some cases, it’s worth considering whether a video call is really the most efficient option — and then aim to limit video calls to only those that are necessary.

Make turning on the camera optional — which may require recrafting internal and external understanding that cameras do not (always) have to be on throughout the entirety of every meeting.

Here’s a practical tip: if you’re prone to self-criticism when in a Zoom room, right-click your image and select “hide self-view.” If you’re on a different platform that doesn’t have a similar option, put a sticky note over your face. And remember, shrinking your screen can ease the possible distress of feeling that others are “in” your personal space. 

And here’s a pro tip if you need to keep your camera on: Try moving your screen to the side instead of having it straight on; it may help with concentration, especially in larger group meetings, making you feel more like you’re in an adjoining room, which can be less tiring.

If video meetings negatively impact your mental health or productivity, set some time aside each day to be screen-free. Even simple sky-gazing can give your mind a health-inspired hiatus from self-criticism and your eyes a break from screen strain.

Also, build transition periods between video meetings — stretch, drink water, take a movement moment — all can help refresh the Zoom fatigued soul. If the picture is getting in the way, normalize turning it off — it can do a body good!