Virtual Emotional Labor, Zoom Fatigue & the Ethics of Care

Recently, I have been reflecting on compensation, energetic exchange, and value as it pertains to my work in this digital pandemic age. This has become a pressing issue for me given how much I devote my whole self to it. I first felt the emotional weight of my work when I presented at Cambridge’s Social Power and Mental Health Conference in 2021. My presentation discussed findings from interviews I conducted with Black New Yorkers diagnosed with mental illness. I sought to learn how they navigated the sickness, death, isolation, and fear that came along with the COVID-19 pandemic and the racially charged events of 2020. My presentation laid the groundwork for my first publication Visions of Black Futurity Amidst the Double Pandemic of COVID-19 and Police Brutality. Given that the intensity of my research topic, my work requires an intense amount of emotional labor. This is further amplified by the fact that I identify with many of my participants’ lived experiences. However, I did not realize the toll my work takes until I shared it during virtual speaking engagements.

I was excited to be a part of the event at Cambridge. It was the first academic conference I had encountered that encouraged “research through lived experience,” welcoming mental health professionals, researchers, and peers, and often people who hold more than one of those identities. The context of the Social Power and Mental Health conference made me feel like it would be a safe place to share from my personal experience and practice disclosure in an academic setting. When an audience member asked the panel how our lived experience impacts our work, I gave an honest answer about how mental illness and motherhood inform my current research. It was a jarringly uncomfortable experience. After I spoke I sat uneasily in front of my laptop in the corner of my bedroom. No eye contact reassured me that people were engaged. No nods indicated that people resonated with my words. There was no reassuring body language or encouraging applause or sounds from the audience.

Naked in front of everyone in the Zoom room, it felt as if the next panelist who spoke dumped cold water on my bare skin. In response to my vulnerable share, they began “Well, I don’t believe in labels.” I am sure this was not their intention, but I felt like they completely dismissed my lived experience. Once everyone responded to the audience member’s question the Q&A abruptly ended and the conference was over. Unlike in-person conferences, there were no opportunities for informal conversation and opportunities for audience members to introduce themselves and give me more feedback. As I mentally transitioned back into being in my home and not at Cambridge I felt depleted. I questioned myself and regretted disclosing. I wondered if anyone got something out of what I shared. While I remember at least one supportive comment in the chat, I felt like I gained nothing. My mood nosedived and it took me a few days to recover.

Unfortunately, this has not been the only experience where virtual emotional labor compounded my Zoom fatigue negatively impacted my mood. Since the conference at Cambridge, I’ve been invited to speak at mental health and doula organizations. While I know I bring a valuable perspective on racial inequities in mental health care, particularly in the neglected periods of pregnancy, postpartum, and parenthood, I naturally question myself, my knowledge, and wonder if I truly have something worth sharing. As a PhD student, it’s unsurprising that I battle with regular bouts of imposter syndrome. Barriers to connection in this virtual world only exacerbate the problem.

Last week I gave a Master Class at a doula organization on the issues at the intersection of race and mental health crisis response. I drew from research on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, statistics on maternal suicide as well as examples from my own experience with mania and psychosis during my pregnancy. I included difficult, but necessary information I wish I learned before I became a mother. Information I wish I was taught at my previous doula trainings or in treatment with mental health care providers I have worked with over the years. While I received many positive affirmations in the chat throughout my presentation, I still came away from my talk feeling burned out. I felt so low I questioned whether I should accept more invitations like this in the future. Thankfully a few days passed and I recovered. However, this last experience has given me some pause about virtual emotional labor and the ethics of care that are often unaddressed.

When I shared how I was feeling with my husband, he reminded me that there is supposed to be an energetic exchange in public speaking. The speaker studies, prepares, practices, and when they deliver, the audience is supposed to make their own contribution. Their attentiveness, facial expressions, encouraging sounds, and emotional responses are supposed to fuel the speaker, providing them with energy to sustain their drive and enthusiasm. The round of applause at the end of a speech or presentation provides an energetic boost, lifting the speaker’s spirits to prevent immediate depletion. The handshakes, hugs, laughter, and admiration are all a part of the connective tissue that keeps speakers connected to their audiences, fending off the self-defeating thoughts of imposter syndrome. Last but certainly not least of these components is adequate monetary or material compensation, allowing the speaker to take care of their needs and refuel, but most importantly, to feel like their work is valued.

It is so incredibly hard in today’s virtual world to have our needs met as public speakers, especially when emotional labor also requires emotional compensation. As an academic, sharing my work is par for the course. If I want to be successful, public speaking is not something I can avoid. Therefore, I will be thinking deeply about what constitutes my ethics of care and how to cultivate the kinds of virtual exchanges that would fill me up and feel most meaningful.

Image Description: An exhausted woman covering her mouth with her hands as she stares deadpan at her laptop screen.

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