As I talk to my CEO clients and others across the work spectrum, the common refrain that I hear is, “I am so tired.” Somehow, I feel I have Lili von Shtupp’s lyrics stuck in my head on repeat.

“I’m so tired
Goddammit, I’m exhausted
Tired, tired of playing the game
Ain’t it a crying shame
I’m so tired.”

So why is everyone tired? I put it down to three things: Zoom Fatigue, Long Hours, and our environment.


Zoom Fatigue

Zoom Fatigue is real! Before COVID hit, roughly two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face. No more. Most of us still talk in person with the people we live with and maybe with a friend or two who we have allowed into our pods. There may be the occasional chat with the cashier at the grocery store, restaurant, or the UPS delivery person. However, almost all other interactions, work conversation, book clubs, dinner parties, joking around at the gym have either disappeared or moved online. Thus, nearly all of us are yearning for more social connections.

With the onset of COVID, Zoom, Teams, Skype, other video calling systems calls took off. Not only that, but telephone calls, which had been declining in favor of text, were like Mark Twain: the report of their death was an exaggeration.

  • AT&T reported that from mid-March to May 1, wireless voice calls peaked at 44% above typical levels, and Wi-Fi calling more than doubled.
  • In March, Verizon was reporting an average of 800 million wireless calls each weekday. That’s nearly double the number of calls made on Mother’s Day, typically the busiest call day of the year.
  • According to an RBC analyst, Zoom average 148.4 million monthly active users in Q2 2020, up 4,700% year over year.

So while we are communicating through new and old channels, it is different. According to  Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, “Compared to face to face, texting and using social media, energy use during a Zoom call is higher. It was more intense than these other [modes].” Besides, Hall’s research shows that video calls also seemed to heighten not lessen loneliness. “People said, after the fact, that they felt lonely, less connected [on video chat].”

Hall argues Zoom fatigue is real. “Zoom is exhausting and lonely because you have to be so much more attentive and so much more aware of what’s going on than you do on phone calls.” We are also asking everyone on the call to have their cameras on see how people are doing, but then you are also watching yourself speak. Research shows that when we’re on video, we tend to spend the most time gazing at our own faces. So, hide from view. Also, when on video, we also focus on other’s backgrounds as well. We can see their furniture, plants, and artwork. We start straining to see what books they have on their shelves. Processing all these stimuli takes a lot of very energy, increasing mental fatigue. Also, bandwidth issues causing blips, delays, and cut off sentences create confusion.

Not only that, but video calls make it easier than ever to lose focus. We all believe we absolutely can listen intently, check our email, text a friend, and post a smiley face on Slack within the same thirty seconds. Except, of course, we don’t end up doing much listening at all when we’re distracted. Not only that, but it quickly becomes obvious to the others that you are not focused and mentally checked out, which is a distraction to the entire group.

Finally, there are issues of co-workers being invited into your private living spaces and all the issues that bring with it. People are questioning coworkers’ tastes in art and home décor and being exposed to more of their online chat participants than expected. The latest to fall foul of that was New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, but there are cases of mothers being caught nude on their children’s school zoom calls, and much worse.

According to Hall, phone calls, by comparison, are less demanding. “You can be in your own space. You can take a walk, make dinner.” 

How to combat Zoom fatigue

I believe there are a few steps we can take to reduce Zoom fatigue, and they are:

  • Basic teamwork blocking and tackling. Start meetings asking about the team and how they are doing personally. Recognize contributions. At this time, we are all suffering, and recognition helps lift our spirits. Celebrate victories. There aren’t many, and we need to celebrate more.
  • Have an agenda. No Zoom call should occur without a clear agenda on what is to be covered in the call. Also, whoever called the meeting has to ensure that everyone sticks to the agenda and needs to quieten those that continue talking. I have noticed that it is hard to get a word in on a Zoom call if others keep talking, so the meeting head needs to use the mute button generously at times.
  • Fewer meetings. Since Zoom meetings are exhausting, we need to limit them. Since we are all craving connection, it has become like cc emails. We include everyone, but not everyone needs to be on all calls. If there is an agenda, those that don’t need to attend can say so. Remember Jeff Bezos’s 2-pizza rule. No more than 6 to 8 people. The more people, the more unproductive the meeting becomes.
  • Shorten meetings. When meetings are too long, attendees tend to switch to offline mode and focus on emails or messages. Meetings have reverted to a 1-hour standard, but why? Push your team to do better and make it a company priority to set a new meeting standard of 30 minutes maximum. Make it short and sweet, and keep the focus on the issues at hand.
  • Avoid multitasking. Researchers have found that people who multitask can’t remember things and their more singularly focused peers. So, during your next video chat, close any tabs or programs that might distract you (e.g., your inbox or Slack), put your phone away, and stay present.
  • Build-in breaks. Take mini-breaks from video during longer calls by minimizing the window or just looking away from your computer completely for a few seconds every so often. Your colleagues probably understand more than you think — it is possible to listen without staring at the screen for a full thirty minutes. This is a time just to let your eyes rest for a moment. If you are stuck in a day of back to back Zoom meetings, building a 10-minute buffer between calls to stretch and walk.
  • Reduce onscreen stimuli. Encourage people to use virtual backgrounds, preferably ones that don’t move, or agree as a group to have everyone who is not talking turn off their video.

Also, Hall suggests three more rules:

  1. Tighten the circle of people you communicate with. In technology, as in life, we have layers of intimacy. According to Hall, “It’s not the case that more is better. We can only maintain so many relationships at a time.
  2. Build communication into your routines. “Have something on the calendar that you repeatedly do, make it a part of what’s on your daily or weekly or monthly to-do list,” Hall says. I have a monthly Zoom call with some high school friends, which has been a great way to reconnect and chat through all we are going through.
  3. Strengthen the signal. Use communication methods that make you feel the most connected and think about the content of your interactions. As Hall says, “We’re still human beings who need each other. We’re going to use technology to recreate the things that we need.”

Long hours

With COVID, our workspace has invaded our homes. The separation of relaxation and work is lost as so we work longer. Also, many of us are dealing with our children’s challenges at home learning virtually, which is a huge distraction and prevents many from doing their jobs. As a result, work gets moved to when the children are done or asleep, lengthening the workday. Effectively we are all working continual overtime.

However, research shows employees who work overtime hours experience numerous mental, physical, and social effects. Significant effects include stress, lack of free time, poor work-life balance, and health risks. Besides, employee performance levels fall, and there is an increase in tiredness, fatigue, and lack of attentiveness. Here is a list of things you and your employees can do to reduce stress.

From what I see and hear, everyone is experiencing this. The initial increase in productivity with the onset of COVID has gone, and overall productivity has fallen. There is overall euphoria for those whose children have returned to school as they are regaining time to work and then be engaged with their children at the end of the day.

How to combat long hours

Combatting long hours is more difficult than Zoom fatigue. But realistically, COVID will affect us for another year, so you need to adjust your planning to that reality. During the winter months, it will get worse as outside activities become more limited. However, here are some suggestions.

  • Be disciplined with your calendar. Don’t allow it to fill up with meetings. If you are in the C-Suite, ensure that your people limit their meetings, both in time and number. As mentioned above, move meetings to 30 minutes and limit the number of back to back meetings.
  • Build-in breaks. Every two hours, take a 30-minute break. Walk around the neighborhood, meditate, or do yoga. The break in the routine will be mentally stimulating.
  • Take time off. Encourage people in your organization to take time off. From the data out there, the amount of unused PTO is at record levels. However, estimates are that unused vacations cost the U.S. $224 billion a year. Allow for a day off for the organization. Be clear about your annual leave and other paid time off guidance, especially if they have changed during COVID. Not only that, but encourage people to go something different other than sit at home. Currently, I am sitting in San Francisco with some friends. The change in scenery and environment is incredibly refreshing and mentally revitalizing. Read more at Managers, Encourage Your Team to Take Time Off.
  • Find a hobby. We are trapped in our homes. So we need to find something outside of work that is mentally refreshing and brings us happiness and excitement. It is a great time to find a new hobby, read some of the classics, or finish those DIY projects that have been on our to-do list forever. I found archery that way as I would go into a zone for the entire time, and it provided a break. A CEO I know has joined her husband doing woodwork, and it is something they both look forward to at the end of the day.


Our Environment

We are heading into the holiday season, and this year it is going to be very different. For those with college children, they will be home much longer. There will be no parties and few opportunities to socialize. There will be little shopping at malls for gifts, but UPS, FedEx, and Amazon trucks will fill the road. Those with extended families are likely to travel to see them. After nine months of COVID, this is what we have to look forward to. Not only that, but we can expect COVID to be disrupting our lives for another nine to twelve months. All of which is mentally draining.

How to deal with this. The best way, in my opinion, is the Stockdale Paradox. James Stockdale was held captive during the Vietnam War as a prisoner of war for over seven years. Stockdale was repeatedly tortured during his captivity and had no reason to believe he’d make it out alive. To stay alive in this hell reality, Stockdale embraced both the harshness of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism. The paradox, as he put it, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” In its simplest form, the paradox is the idea of hoping for the best but acknowledging and preparing for the worst.

Of course, as a follower of the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, Stockdale may have had an advantage, but we can all learn from the paradox. The paradox holds a great lesson for how to achieve success and overcome difficult obstacles. It also challenges unbridled optimists and those positivity peddlers whose advice we are encouraged to follow. In discussion with Jim Collins for his book Good to Great, Stockdale spoke about how the optimists fared in the prison camp. The dialogue goes:

JC: “Who didn’t make it out?”

JS: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.”

JC: “The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

JS: “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Your organization—or unconscious mind—may be hoping on some other event or date after which some version of “rescue” will come: a vaccine, a cure, a reliable and cheap test, the acquisition of herd immunity.

However, to review the brutal facts, none of these developments are likely in the foreseeable short term. There is a possibility that there may never be a fully effective vaccine or cure; this virus may be something that we live with and manage for years to come. If that is the case, we will have to change elements of our social interaction in unprecedented ways that may well lead to irrevocable social changes.

Besides, the effects of the virus today ensure there will be no normal to return to, as this incomplete list indicates:

What to do?

With regard to business leadership and management, this duality helps to guard against the onslaught of disappointments that COVID delivers in the business world. Optimism drives innovation; however, we need to maintain realism and not over-optimistically chase something that can’t happen.

The COVID crisis is affecting your employees in very different ways depending on where they live, what they do, their family situation, and their understanding of and expectations about the pandemic, among other factors. As a result, your team members are probably in different phases of reaction to the crisis. Keep this in mind and here are some additional suggestions.

  • Start meetings by having each person introduce themselves by their name, job title, mission, and their immediate tasks. Doing so brings people back to themselves and helping them begin to focus again on their roles, relationships, and tasks which is of utmost importance. The important role of a leader during a crisis is to consistently articulate the organization’s purpose and connect each day’s tasks to it. Without this, people drift. While the need for planning is crystal clear in acute, short-term crises. Planning in a long-term situation where the threat to survival rolls on monotonously day after day is not always so clear. This is because planning automatically implies a future, and this future is frequently in doubt. All leaders, not only those in the C-suite, must understand the organization’s purpose, values, and how those connect to each day’s work. Managers have at least as much impact on team morale and performance as the overall organization itself does. In crises, people tend to rely on the authority figures they already know and trust even more than usual. And remote work means that a direct manager may be an employee’s only real point of contact with the organization.
  • Regularly ask at meetings: “What is something that doesn’t fit in, that doesn’t make sense?” As we face a rapidly changing set of circumstances knowing what data points matter is difficult. Ensure there is time to discuss facts that don’t seem to fit the narrative. During a crisis, we automatically discount our experience and lean towards denial. To fight these cognitive biases, we must be made aware of them. As you and your team move through this time, you will sometimes lose focus, make mistakes, and have errors in judgment. The key is to normalize admitting these mistakes and analyzing them. Make discussing weak spots, harm reduction, and damage control part of the weekly meetings. This will lead to better decision making going forward.
  • Enable ways for your team to surface both their deep faith and their real fears. Engaging in “As if” exercises, roleplay, and assigned mental exercises can help teams articulate thoughts and feelings that may be too threatening to acknowledge otherwise. “Having a value system, a sense of identity, a purpose for one’s existence increases the odds of survival and resiliency.” When deciding on a course of action, have team members engage in mental contrasting. Mental contrasting requires a person or team to (i) visualizes a goal and its rewards, and (ii) visualizes what obstacles, including their own behavior, stand between them and their goal. It is necessary to envision both the positive and the negative. According to W. Von Bergen and Martin S. Bressler, when people focus on only positive thoughts about the future, “they literally trick their minds into thinking they have already succeeded and, so, do not need actual efforts to attain something perceived as already acquired. However, completely disregarding positive thinking is also not effective. With purely negative thoughts, people convince themselves that they have already lost the goal, so, again, there is no need to make the efforts necessary to achieve it.”
  • Have faith. Ask yourself: What were your highest values in January 2020? For you as an individual or for your company? Those values still matter, and those ideals did not change because of COVID. So, ask:
    • What are your brutal facts? What is your deepest faith?
    • What would your version of the Stockdale Paradox be?
    • What does your organization exist for?
    • What is your organizational purpose? How engaging is it?

I hope some of this helps. Hang in there and have faith. The road may be rough, but as John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Copyright (c) Marc A. Borrelli, 2020