How do I handle video chat burnout?

Our advice columnist shares advice for managing all. those. meetings.

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

Q: I’m lucky enough to be working from home right now with a pretty secure job. But suddenly, it seems as if every single person I work with wants to video chat, even for stuff we used to handle over email, phone calls, or Slack. Between Zoom meetings for work during the day and FaceTime happy hours and Google Hangouts with friends at night, I’m quickly approaching video chat burnout. I know others are feeling isolated, but I need some quiet to get work done and have some me time! How do I tell people, including managers and friends, that I can’t—nor want to—constantly be video chatting?

First, congrats on your secure job and ability to work from home! These are good things that should be celebrated during this time. 

As for the overwhelming video chat situation, you are very much definitely not alone (sending you a virtual hug!). There’s been a rush to use video chats instead of well-trodden, perfectly fine options like phone calls or emails in this time of social distancing so that we can show our faces to one another and perhaps feel less isolated. But it doesn’t always work that way in practice. 

Incessant video chats (and especially those with many people, in which you’re awkwardly jockeying to figure out who gets to speak when) can cause a feeling of even more disconnection and isolation, particularly if you’re a person who tends to be more introverted. It’s just so much screen time, and if we know anything, it’s that a lot of us could do with significantly less screen time—not just to alleviate eye strain but also for our mental health and sense of greater connection to the world at large. And, of course, there’s the fact that you’re being asked to look at yourself, essentially, for an entire meeting. At best, this can be a little bit disconcerting or something to get used to; at worst, it’s immensely anxiety-provoking (in already anxiety-provoking times). 

So what should you do to calm your anxieties, alleviate your burnout, and get a little more “you” time (and a little more work time, too)? Here are some ideas. 

1. Go into survey mode

When you’re dealing with a problem, it’s often helpful to take a minute to step back and look at what’s going on from an as-objective-as-possible perspective without having to decide what you’re going to do about it right then and there. This is your chance to take in all the information you can and figure out what to do next. 

You’re overwhelmed with video chats, but how many, exactly, are we talking about, and how much time out of your day do they take up? Also, what is it about them that you find overwhelming? Do you hate being on camera, do you find them ineffective at accomplishing what they set out to do, are there simply too many of them, or do they go on too long? 

Take a day or two and track the number of video chats you’re expected to be on, how much time they took, what they’re about, and which ones were actually helpful as video chats as opposed to another form of communication. Make some notes! If they weren’t helpful, or you felt particularly drained by them, note why you think that is. Also note whether you could try another form of communication to accomplish the purpose of these chats, what it might be, and why it could be better.

Do the same assessment for your after-hours social Zooms, obviously with more of a personal/social/mental health analysis: Are these Zooms making you feel good or bad? Can the connection you hope to get through video chats be achieved another way?

2. Communicate!

Ironically, this is what these video chats are supposed to help us do. But when they’re not as effective at what they purport to accomplish, it’s time to speak up, either to a manager or, especially if you’re a freelancer or own your own business, to your clients themselves. This could be as simple as offering an alternative—“Do you mind doing this by phone or email? I’m finding myself on a huge number of video calls these days, and would prefer another method”—or, if your manager is committed to video chats, it may require a more extensive discussion about what your options are and why being on video chats is so important.

If the latter, reach out to discuss. (Give yourself a video break by sending an email to schedule a quick phone call to talk.) Explain how much of your time is being taken up by video calls and why it’s creating a challenging situation for you. Offer some solutions, referring back to your notes if necessary. Perhaps a few of these calls can become Slack conversations, or you can step out of some of them entirely. Certainly, email has been a tried-and-true method of communication, so why not return to that for some things?

Frame all of this in terms of wanting to do your job to the best of your ability, and ask your manager for guidance in doing that. Chances are, they, too, are starting to feel the burn of incessant video chats. They may have some thoughts on how to move forward better, or they may simply need to hear and understand what you have to say. At the same time, there might be valid reasons for having a video chat that you’re simply not aware of. 

Hearing what they have to say—e.g., “I need you on a weekly video chat to prove without a doubt to my supervisor that the team is working and necessary”—may make this temporary reality a little more tolerable, even if it doesn’t change much.

As for your after-hours social Zooms, this is both easier and harder. You probably want to socialize with friends on some level, and you may feel indebted to your group to continue to check in via the way they’re suggesting. But happy hour Zooms are not your job. I suggest being as direct, in a nice way, with your friends as possible. “Hey, guys. I’m going to sit this one out. I’ve been on video chats all day for work and need to give my eyes a break from screen time tonight” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say that does not cut you out of the possibility of being on future video chats. 

You might instead reach out to schedule one-on-one phone calls with friends, keeping them to a time limit to give yourself space afterward to check out, read a book, watch a movie, or just stare at a wall. We are all different and need different things in order to refresh and keep going!

3. Schedule your time wisely

Let’s say that you’ve managed to winnow down a few of the video chats you’re expected to be on each day, and you’ve changed most of your after-work socializing to direct phone calls or something non-screen-based. But you’re still expected to be on X number of video chats a day. You can still alleviate some of the burnout. 

Take breaks! Make sure to actually get up in between video calls, and try to avoid them being scheduled back-to-back. There’s simply a limit to how much a person can concentrate and engage in that way. Try to take a non-screen-focused lunch. Go for a walk, or do exercises in your home. When you’re done for the day, be done for the day.

You can also, as much as your schedule allows, try to block off time between work tasks that aren’t meetings and the meetings you’re expected to show up for digitally. If you can, say, spend the morning checking things off your to-do list, an afternoon video chat is going to seem much less taxing and maybe even a little bit fun. Try to keep the meetings as short as possible—or talk to your manager about how to do this; each video chat meeting should have a purpose and agenda and time frame—so that when they’re over, you can go back to feeling productive at work, not video chatting.

4. Continue to adjust

We are still in the early stages of all this, and it’s important to keep that in mind and be flexible. Something that may help with your burnout is to acknowledge that it is in your power to keep evolving in a way that suits you best (within the confines of your work duties, of course). It’s up to you to keep tabs on how everything that’s happening makes you feel, to recognize the impact on your work and then to advocate for yourself. That will lend a sense of empowerment that’s helpful not only in a pandemic but also afterward. Someday, this moment will end, but problem-solving skills last forever. 

So, for example, if you realize that part of the burnout is coming from watching yourself on video, consider turning off your camera during chats. If you need to get out more (while social distancing, of course), try to convert some of your video chats to phone calls and go for a walk while taking your meeting. Only participate in video chats with smaller groups, if possible—especially if the large ones make you feel anxious or ignored. Ask for other options when you can. 

When you are in a video chat, focus on the chat alone and try to avoid multitasking, which wears on your brain faster and can also make you seem disinterested to others, a double-whammy of bad. Make sure you’re getting the most out of the multitude of video chat services—which do have their benefits—by using tips on how to make them productive. And be sure to carve out part of your day that doesn’t involve screens at all. It’s the least you could do for yourself and, ultimately, your work too.

Jen Doll is a journalist and author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and other publications.

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