Experimental findings published in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed that employees who had their cameras on during virtual meetings experienced greater fatigue and, in turn, reduced performance during meetings. This was especially true for women and newer employees, suggesting that a heightened need for self-presentation may be the cause of this fatigue.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many workplaces to go remote, companies turned to online platforms like Zoom to stay connected through virtual meetings. Employees soon began to report feeling mentally drained after these constant online meetings, inspiring the new term “Zoom fatigue.” Study authors Kristen M. Shockley and her team say that while Zoom fatigue is real, it is unclear why it occurs.
The researchers proposed that being on camera during a virtual meeting might contribute to fatigue by triggering self-presentation needs. Self-presentation is a cognitively demanding process whereby a person closely monitors and regulates their behavior in order to present themselves positively. Shockley and her colleagues further proposed that since impression management is especially important for women and newer employees, these two groups should be more sensitive to the self-presentation effects of camera use.
In August and September 2020, the researchers conducted a field experiment among a sample of 103 U.S. employees working remotely in the healthcare sector. While camera use was typically optional during the organization’s virtual meetings, during the four-week study period, employees were assigned to one of two conditions that dictated camera use. In one condition, the employee was asked to spend two weeks with their camera on during all meetings, followed by two weeks with their camera off. In the second condition, the instructions were reversed — the employee spent two weeks with their camera off during meetings, followed by two weeks with their camera on.
At the end of every workday, the employees answered short questionnaires assessing their current levels of fatigue, the extent that they had felt engaged during that day’s meetings, and whether or not they felt they had a voice during meetings. On average, participants attended 4.88 virtual meetings per day, adding up to an average of 3.06 hours in virtual meetings per day.
An analysis of the data revealed that neither the number of meetings per day nor the number of hours spent in meetings was significantly related to fatigue. However, having the camera on during meetings was positively associated with fatigue. As expected, this effect was stronger among women (compared to men), and among newer employees (compared to employees with greater tenure). Camera use was also negatively related to performance in the meetings, through fatigue. Having a camera on was tied to greater fatigue, which in turn, was tied to lower engagement and voice during meetings. Again, the negative effect of camera use on engagement and voice through fatigue was especially strong among women and newer employees.
This pattern of findings suggests that being on camera can have a detrimental impact on employees by contributing to fatigue, and in turn, weakening their engagement and contributions in meetings. These effects are especially strong among women, likely because women are more concerned with presenting themselves in a positive light compared to men. Self-presentation may be more important for women since they tend to be perceived as less competent than men and since gender norms place stronger emphasis on women’s physical appearance compared to men’s. Similarly, newer employees are more affected by camera use during meetings likely because they are more concerned with impression management, being less established than tenured employees.
Shockley and her team theorize that being on camera makes people more aware of their appearance and more concerned with regulating their behavior during meetings. This feeling of being watched causes them to over-focus on themselves, taking their attention away from the meeting. They say that one future avenue of research would be to test whether alternative camera angles might be less draining. For example, a wide-angled camera might add distance between the user and the camera, alleviating self-presentation needs. It may also be beneficial to offer employees the choice to have their cameras off during virtual meetings.
The study, “The Fatiguing Effects of Camera Use in Virtual Meetings: A Within-Person Field Experiment”, was authored by Kristen M. Shockley, Allison S. Gabriel, Daron Robertson, Christopher C. Rosen, Nitya Chawla, Mahira L. Ganster, and Maira E. Ezerins.