As March and April turned into a pandemic lockdown and life went online, there was a sudden universal shift to using telephone and video calls to enable the continued provision of counselling when face-to-face was no longer an option. A rush of trainings and discussions arrived on the practicalities of doing this. I completed the BACP/Open University course on online counselling and this – and other trainings – suggested that the use of technology doesn’t diminish the therapeutic alliance. I am aware that many counsellors and therapists report that the use of video calls does not diminish their experience of the connection between counsellor and client. In some ways, video calls can be seen as a useful tool to help us continue our work, but as time went by and life stayed online, my personal experience of video calling told me something different and I began to look into the wider picture of using this in the long term.

When using video calls, whether for work, socialising or attending a conference, I experienced an ongoing feeling of sadness. It felt like something wasn’t quite as it should be. As this feeling persisted, I felt it needed attending to. There can be a perspective which sees resistance to online work as holding onto an outdated tradition of working. My experiences went beyond any lack of willingness to use a new digital tool and felt more like a sorrow or loss. I decided to look into what others were saying about video calling to explore ideas around what was happening when we use this medium as a way of communicating, and what was potentially being lost.

I soon discovered that even the proponents of virtual reality were saying that video calls ‘…fall short of delivering the feeling of connectedness that comes with being together face to face’.1 Their solution to this is to develop virtual reality technology to enable us to more easily convince our minds that we are together. The ‘together’ mode on MS Teams was created for this very reason, to help our minds believe a little bit more that we are together.

In April last year, there was plenty of discussion about ‘Zoom fatigue’. The lack of eye contact, body signals and other social cues were leaving people feeling tired. Microsoft’s research team found that ‘…brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork were much higher when collaborating remotely than in-person’ and that ‘…sustained concentration in video meetings leads to fatigue’.2 

I noticed that articles about Zoom fatigue often framed this problem of tiredness in terms of the user needing more ‘self-care’. They gave tips and ideas about how to overcome or try to prevent fatigue, rather than asking what the fatigue was telling us. It seemed to continue a neoliberalist tendency to site problems within the individual. This rewards an ability to adjust, be ‘resilient’ or ‘agile’ amidst fast-paced change without acknowledging the social and political context. Counselling services in HE have been incrementally changing their method of delivery for quite some time. I wonder how much of this is a response to the pressure to prove ourselves while faced with diminishing resources in a sector which is becoming ever more market driven. As lecturer Dr Ruth Cain says in her blog about the impact of neoliberalism on mental health, ‘Perhaps most wearying are the invasive yet distant commands from media, state institutions, advertisements, friends or employers to self-maximise, persevere, grab your slice of the diminishing pie, “because you are worth it” – although you must constantly prove it, every day’.3

To tackle Zoom fatigue, we are advised to move about the room or ‘…look, and walk, and stretch, and rest’.4 I understand the need to find ways to cope, and in some manner adjust to the current situation, but it bothers me how quickly we seem to accept this way of relating to each other as our norm while incrementally losing something in the process. In my journal, I wrote, ‘To absorb myself in the meeting of others on screen means leaving behind or denying my experience of being alone’.5 For our minds to be convinced that someone is present, do we end up overriding the experience of our body and in doing so accept a depleted way of relating?

In an article about videoconferencing, Robert Detwiler talks about how high-resolution videoconferencing tries to create a sense of immersion in the screen environment. This produces a suspension of disbelief and things become ‘hyperreal’.6

As more and more sophisticated ways are being found of convincing our minds that we are together when we aren’t, I wonder whether the separation between mind and body experience is growing. In her blog about Zoom fatigue, mindfulness chaplain Dr Kitty Wheater observed that ‘…part of what seems to be asked of us is disembodied communication’.7 In April last year, Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, commented in a BBC interview: ‘Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally’.8

The pandemic has abruptly pushed the use of online communication forward, and with this comes the expectation to go along with it. There appears to be a popular narrative which suggests that students are native to the digital world and that connecting online doesn’t bother them, but when I asked my daughter about the difference between talking to her grandparents on Zoom and seeing them in person, she described it as a ‘loss of connection and intimacy’.

While the HE counselling sector seems to be celebrating its ability to quickly take services online, seeing it as revolutionising their modes of delivery, students tell me something different. They describe their feelings of isolation: the disconnection of not seeing the faces of other students in online teaching sessions, the difficulty in making new friends and developing relationships without the richness of in-person contact. They miss talking with friends as they walk outdoors. Some tell me about being fed up of online everything and many prefer a phone call to a video call.

As video calling became suddenly widely used as a method of connecting, another sadness arose in me around the attempts to continue ‘as normal’. It felt like we were making dramatic changes to keep services going without asking what the long-term cost might be. Along with this, there seemed to be a kind of pride in the sector about the rapid adjustment towards the digitalisation of counselling and a move away from what some describe as outdated delivery methods.

It concerns me that in order to keep ‘business as usual’, counselling services are bypassing these losses and in doing so missing the potential which can arise from transition. It feels a bit like our sector is saying, ‘Aren’t we clever and modern!’ without listening to the quiet voice of wisdom, experience and what we know about the needs of humans. As Thomas Moore writes in Care of The Soul, ‘How many times do we lose an occasion for soul work by leaping ahead to final solutions without pausing to savor the undertones? We are a radically bottom-line society, eager to act and to end tension, and thus we lose opportunities to know ourselves for our motives and our secrets’.9

Digitalisation has its benefits but can distract us from attending to what is being lost, while also depriving us of the potential to stop and notice a world in crisis. As technology allows us to keep services going, we can miss the pause created by periods of transition and end up too busy to sit with the liminal spaces offered by these times.

In his essay collection, In the Absence of the Ordinary, Francis Weller observes that, ‘This is a season of decay, of shedding and endings, of falling apart and undoing. This is not a time of rising and growth.’10

A response of activity and development may deprive us of our connection to stillness, mystery, imagination and the very information we need to envision a meaningful way to navigate these times of change. The danger is that we end up trying to use technology to replicate what we have had to let go of, without acknowledging or grieving our deeper loss. Do we really know where we are going or why we are going there?

I wonder about the larger picture too. As we continue to override the experience of not actually being present with each other, do we lose a connection to information from places other than our minds? Does this then disconnect us from our environment and from the earth, a disconnection which contributes to how we treat the planet? There is also the direct impact on the planet of our increasing use of digital tools. There are positive impacts, such as reduced travelling, but ‘…behind the life cycle of our digital tools lies a vast network, involving human and natural exploitation, continuous energy consumption and pollution’.11

The shift to digital has been rapid: ‘Companies have gone through a digital transformation this year at the equivalent of what might have taken 10 years before the pandemic’.12

Students express feeling powerlessness when being made dependent on digital technology in so many aspects of their lives. Do we deny on some level how our services collude with this growing dependency? It is hard to catch a bus or park a car without an app for your phone. It concerns me that we are being swept along to a point where we constantly need to update our technology to take part in society. Are our counselling services also contributing to the exclusion of people who can’t afford the IT or the Wi-Fi or the data, can’t find a private space to talk in a busy household or just don’t relate easily over digital platforms?

I continue to feel sad in the middle of this frenetic hurtling towards digitalisation. The quiet voice of my soul is slow, reserved and doesn’t care for this efficiency.

In 2017, Mark Boyle, author of ‘The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology’, lived for a year without modern technology. It is worth listening to the insight this experience gave him: ‘For as a computer “quit screen” message once said, everything not saved will be lost. We would do well to heed it lest we lose ourselves’.13  


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