Zoom Fatigue Provides Window to Understanding Hearing Loss

Shari Eberts

Hearing health advocate

Do you get Zoom fatigue — that feeling of utter exhaustion after a long day of video conference calls? I certainly do. A recent article published in Technology, Mind and Behavior explains the reasons why. As I read the article, I began seeing the parallels between Zoom fatigue and the issues I regularly face as a person with hearing loss.

Research Explains Psychological Reasons for Zoom Fatigue

The study, conducted by Stanford University Professor Jeremy Bailenson, examined the psychological impact of spending so many hours each day in video chats. He identified four factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue. The study also offered suggestions for how consumers and organizations can mitigate them.

Four factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue:

  1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact
  2. High levels of cognitive load to interpret and create non-verbal cues
  3. The stress of looking at yourself all day
  4. Reduced mobility that come with video chats

The first two are a just a regular part of everyday conversation for someone with hearing loss. Constant and continual visual attention is nothing new for us — it's how we hear!

1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact

In a Zoom meeting, participants spend the entire time looking intently at one another. Even when you are not speaking, it feels as if all eyes are on you, and vice versa. When someone else is speaking, you see them up close and personally, without any meaningful breaks. This is not typical.

In a normal meeting, people are making eye contact occasionally, while also gazing at their notes or looking at a picture on the wall and other places. It is not as intense or as constant, so the cognitive toll is reduced.

But for people with hearing loss, sustained vigilance to the person speaking is the norm. Speechreading requires that we pay close attention to the person's eyes, the way their lips move, and other non-verbal cues like their facial expression. We don't have the luxury of diverting our gaze — we might miss an important clue to what they are saying. This unwavering attention is exhausting — on Zoom and in person — hence the hearing loss exhaustion we often feel at the long day of active listening.

2. High levels of cognitive load to interpret and create non-verbal cues

Speechreading is all about nonverbal communication. The slight twitch at the corner of the mouth can indicate humor or tension in the forehead can mean distress. People with hearing loss are constantly attending to these subtle details to help them communicate. This is our norm.

But for hearing people, according to the study, nonverbal cues don't require much conscious attention. This changes on a Zoom call, where gestures are less discernible and can be taken out of context. Is that person nodding in agreement or because someone else entered the room and asked them a question? Should I give a thumbs up to indicate agreement or just nod my head?

The additional cognitive load associated with attending to these nonverbal cues can be exhausting on Zoom. Yet this is all in a day's work for people with hearing loss.

Welcome to Our World

One silver lining of the pandemic is that hearing people have now come to realize what people with hearing loss have always known — concentrating on conversation takes work! As in-person meetings and gatherings become more common, our cognitive load will stay high. But perhaps Zoom fatigue has helped create a more empathetic hearing world — one that will better understand the communication challenges that we face.