Combatting Vocal Fatigue in a Virtual World
By: Melanie Aleman, Shauna Mackey & Tara Segalewitz
The COVID-19 pandemic has made remote work and virtual learning the new norm for millions of people worldwide. Social gatherings, meetings, classrooms and doctor’s visits are just some of the many types of events now being conducted on virtual platforms. Consequently, many are using their voices more than ever to stay connected. Professional voice users understand the potential consequences of increased vocal demands, but the general public may now be experiencing something called “vocal fatigue.”
Vocal fatigue can be characterized as the feeling of having to utilize more effort to sustain communication and/or a perceived weakness in vocal quality. Reports have indicated that this phenomenon occurs as a result of increased laryngeal muscle tension from overuse and/or misuse of the voice, poor vocal techniques, and high stress (Milbrath & Solomon, 2003). This can be evidenced by vocal changes, such as an increased breathy vocal quality and/or a dysphonic voice. Physically, a speaker may feel discomfort, increased neck tension and/or soreness around the neck and throat (Milbrath & Solomon, 2003).
Virtual platforms, like Zoom, are counterintuitive to normal communication. Many platform users can attest to the “awkward pauses” that often occur. As a speaker or an active participant, we may try to speak louder than normal and/or speak more frequently to compensate for the silence (Vukovic, 2020). Other potential stressors to voice can also arise from overuse of virtual platforms. If a listener complains that he/she cannot hear the speaker, a natural response may be to increase vocal loudness, when it is truly an issue with intelligibility. This requires changes to articulatory precision, rather than volume. Asking for feedback may mitigate this issue.
With some modifications, we can greatly reduce some of the vocal burdens that have resulted from prolonged misuse of the voice on virtual platforms. Using headphones with a built-in microphone and/or conducting meetings in a quiet space can improve speech clarity and volume without modifying voice (Diaz, 2020). Additionally, practicing device ergonomics (i.e. keeping devices at eye level) will accommodate proper posture to promote good voicing and prevent vocal misuse. Finally, using a slow rate of speech can increase understanding.
With increased screen time promoting a more sedentary lifestyle, it can be easy to forget to practice good vocal hygiene. Maintaining adequate hydration (6-8 cups of water per day) and avoiding irritants (e.g. caffeinated beverages, alcohol and smoking) play a key role in vocal fatigue prevention. Additionally, minimizing or eliminating phonotraumatic behaviors, such as smoking, shouting, chronic coughing, throat clearing and loud talking, will help to reduce vocal fatigue (Diaz, 2020).
If difficulty persists, simple vocal exercises can help reduce the strain placed on the vocal folds from prolonged use. Gentle humming, lip and tongue trills, and straw phonation allow for a “vocal reset” throughout the day (Stemple, Roy, & Klaben, 2020).
If implementing these strategies does not result in vocal improvements, you may need to seek voice treatment. Untreated, chronic vocal fatigue may cause polyps, nodules, cysts, hemorrhage and chronic laryngitis (Stemple, Roy, & Klaben, 2020).
Diaz, J. (2020, August 12). Managing Vocal Fatigue During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://leader.pubs.asha.org/do/10.1044/leader.MIW.25082020.34/full/
Milbrath, R. L., & Solomon, N. P. (2003). Do vocal warm-up exercises alleviate vocal fatigue? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 46(2), 422–436. https://doi.org/10.1044/1092-4388(2003/035)
Stemple, J. C., Roy, N., & Klaben, B. (2020). Clinical voice pathology: Theory and management (Sixth ed.). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.
Vukovic, R. (2020, May 6). Vocal fatigue and online teaching. Australian Council for Educational Research – ACER. https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/vocal-fatigue-and-online-teaching