Speak Up! And Turn off the Video in Video Conferencing

Many love video conferencing. With the pandemic, it has become a part of the way we do business. For many, it can cause stress and anxiety and add to deteriorating mental wellness. Research supports it.

Speak up! Tell your boss. Ask to be able to turn off the video. Send them this article if you have trouble articulating how you feel.

Studies suggest that one in four to one in five people suffer from conditions that could make forced video conferencing from uncomfortable to traumatizing. It can negatively impact employees and their contributions.

Adam Nemer, former CFO of a 3+ billion-dollar health care company and current founder of Simply Mental Health was one of those people and now campaigns for the ability to turn off video.

“I had always struggled,” he said, “with meeting people in the eye. It was even brought up once during a performance review, where my boss feared that it may make me seem untrustworthy. I struggled with the feedback.”

He continued, “It has only been since the advent of video conferencing that I put two and two together. The feelings that I experience on a video call are the same as when I’m in a room looking in someone’s eyes: anxiety and panic. It was not that I couldn’t look people in the eye, it was that it brought on anxiety and panic that made me less effective in meetings, so I avoided it.”

There is an old school way of thinking that does not consider reality. When you meet someone, you give them a firm handshake and meet their eye. If you do not, you are thought of as less.

A weak handshake can mean a weak person. Not meeting someone in the eye can mean they are lying or untrustworthy. Imagine meeting Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our lifetime, who suffered from a physical disease that made a firm handshake and meeting the eye impossible. You would not think less of him. The same is true for 20-25% of people on video calls.

From autism to PTSD, researchers have found many reasons why making eye contact is difficult for many.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that sustained eye contact overstimulates a certain area of the brain for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), causing extreme stress and discomfort. Eye contact for people with PTSD can cause responses like fear, pain and anxiety. There are many other examples. Some have to do with mental health issues, some with invisible physical disorders, others with a person’s personality. 

“I struggled daily with making and maintaining eye contact and had no idea why,” said Nemer. “It would make me panic and lose my train of thought. I was actually at my best when I looked out of windows in conference rooms. Staring off into space allowed me to collect my thoughts and be more effective as both a leader and a contributor.

Nemer finally brought the idea up to allow everybody to shut off video during conference calls and explained why. When allowed, many people sent him private messages of thanks.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and University of California found that video conferencing can reduce the effectiveness of employees at meetings. The results of the study proved surprising. It was thought the opposite, though with supporting evidence.

In an article, “Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence,” they explain how verbal cues, as opposed to visual ones, increase the collective contribution of the team.

Various studies from around the world now support allowing the option to turn off video during conference calls and even one on one business calls. It is an issue that needs to be addressed by companies for both the company and the employees.

Employers benefit by taking Nemer’s advice.

  1. Don’t require video on conference calls
  2. Don’t assume a 1:1 conference call is okay before learning the person’s preference
  3. Don’t use negative verbal cues
    1. “We paid a lot of money for video so let everyone turn on the camera.”
    1. “Let’s see all of the brave people turn the camera on.”

Speak up and let your boss know. The benefits of allowing people to turn off the video after a quick introduction are both for you and for them, along with the company. With communication and understanding comes better mental wellbeing as well as a healthier work environment.


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