Wood's Homes Blog

Online fatigue during COVID-19

May 21, 2020
By Justine Marengo, Wood’s Homes Clinician
Online fatigue during COVID-19

After a day of sessions on WebEx with the students from Wood's Homes' William Taylor Learning Centre (WTLC), and then a call to my son’s teachers to try and work out why he was struggling with his online school platform, I sat down and wondered why I was feeling so tired. Surely this feeling isn’t normal? After all, a pre-COVID-19 day at WTLC required a much more intense level of engagement and usually a lot more paperwork, so why was I feeling so tired?

I’ve read many articles recently about various facets of COVID-19 and mental health issues, so a further search began. I have to say, I felt an enormous sense of relief when I found information on a new buzzword: Zoom Fatigue.

As human beings, we are wired for social interaction and a lot has been written about how our mental health has been impacted by the isolation that COVID-19 has required in order to promote our safety. Our brains are designed to pick up on the smallest non-verbal social cues and as such, we can even pick up on these social cues when there is silence. All these cues paint a full picture of the message being sent, as well as the response required from the listener. Extended video calls force our brain to focus on only one aspect of communication and that is the words that are being spoken.  We are forced to listen more intently to the words in order to try and gain some of the other social cues that are being communicated. Our full attention is required all the time.

The beauty of online video calls has been the ability for multiple people to be present on one screen, which has facilitated some sense of connection and has enabled some level of productivity to continue. The downside of this is that it has also forced our brains to process multiple inputs at the same time, which leads to continuous partial attention. Our brains are trying to juggle all the balls being thrown at them and as a result, we are naturally dropping some of them. It is much more difficult to provide our brains with the level of detail that they are used to receiving when it comes to social cues.

At the same time, online video calls have produced an unexpected positive result for me as a clinician. Some students that I had experienced difficulty engaging with in our school are now engaging more positively with me on WebEx. Of course, I put this down to the fact that I was just a skilled therapist and had managed to find a way to engage them – well, not quite.  

Further research popped my therapeutic ego and reminded me that students who have neurological difficulty with interpersonal exchanges (such as kids on the Spectrum) often find it overwhelming to listen to multiple people talking or be in busy social environments. An online video chat with a single person actually eliminates some of this and allows their brains to focus on one speaker, while also eliminating all the small talk before and after. The ambiguity of social interactions for this group of students has been clarified. The frequent lag between each speaker actually helps these students to understand when it is their time to talk and focuses their brains on the cues they often struggle pick up on in other, more saturated social environments. So, no magical therapeutic skills!

The very same reason that I was finding video chats tiring was the same reason this group of kids were finding success in connection. Overall, my sense of fatigue was overshadowed by the realization that this may well provide us new information and a gateway for some to experience success in areas they have often experienced challenges in.

Online video communication has allowed so many positive interactions and social connection to occur during this very challenging time of uncertainty and isolation, but it comes with a new type of fatigue that is very real. If you too are feeling this, know that it may abate once we are able to navigate these new systems a little better, and place some boundaries for ourselves and gauge our desired involvement better – giving our brains time to adjust to these new expectations. Our self-care during this time requires us to also focus on unplugging from these virtual environments, and giving our brains and bodies time to rest.