Last reviewed 14 December 2020

With a larger percentage of the workforce working from home than ever before, virtual communication fatigue is becoming more prevalent.

What is virtual communication fatigue?

Even when working in the office, we receive a huge amount of information on a daily basis. However, there the pace varies: human conversation, body language and even eye contact make communication natural and simple.

Any repetitive task can fatigue us. Indeed, repetition fatigue is a well understood danger in manufacturing industry. But less understood — or at least, less accepted — is the idea that constant, detached communication can cause serious fatigue in employees.

The working from home requirements imposed due to Covid-19 control measures has meant that a lot of office workers are only able to speak with each other via video, or text-based chat clients. This is new to most and is causing some unique stress.

How does fatigue affect workers?

More than just tiredness, fatigue in all its forms can have serious effects, which if left untreated can lead to burnout.

If anyone is noticing several of these symptoms, they may be fatigued:

  • difficulty carrying out simple tasks

  • a severe lack of energy

  • lack of concentration

  • having trouble thinking, speaking or making decisions

  • difficulty in remembering things

  • feeling breathless after only light activity

  • dizziness or a feeling of light-headedness

  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)

  • loss of sex drive

  • feeling more emotional than usual.

While admittedly working eight hours a day in a noisy factory is more likely to lead to these than using remote communication tools at home, the danger is still there. And burnout — whatever the cause — can be damaging to mental health.

How to avoid communication fatigue

The easiest way? Reduce information overload.

It's OK to streamline some meetings, and ask for postponements — especially if those meetings form part of a longer, continuous block. Try booking out some breaks every day, setting yourself to unavailable on your calendar, and getting on with work without chat windows, call alerts and updates blinking away for your attention.

If you can manage it, limit online meetings to 30 minutes or less, and have at least 15 minutes between them. Some companies have adjusted their systems so that meetings can only be booked in 25 or 55-minute slots. If this isn't possible, then a five-minute break in the middle of a meeting where everyone can get up, stretch, fill their water bottle and rest their eyes will go a long way. These breaks are proven to help with engagement — after all, the most productive meetings happen when there is full engagement.

Weirdly, switching off your own video feed can help, due to a phenomenon known as constant gazing. If people only have their own feed visible to themselves while speaking, this phenomenon affects them much less.

And, of course, limiting distractions will help. Closing down windows on other screens, muting audio from other apps and making sure your working area is clear, uncluttered and lacking in shiny toys, will help you concentrate on the video calls you need to make.