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CAN VIRTUAL REALITY TRANSFORM MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL-BEING AT WORK?

Research is increasingly showing how mental health supports contributes to the reversal of employee burnout could XR technologies be the best tool?


The demands for increased productivity has resulted in a workforce that is increasingly stressed, anxious, and isolated. As many as 12-18 % of the working-age group report poor mental health, noting workplace related anxiety as the primary contributor. Increased productivity may have made organizations more profitable, there is, however, a significant opportunity cost. Work-related stress can lead to anxiety, difficulty in communication, poor engagement, reduced attention and increased employee turnover. Those who continue to work despite their illness (presenteeism) may not perform at capacity or may experience burnout. 


Furthermore, the unprecedented changes brought forth by COVID-19 such as working remotely, isolation from colleagues, and ill-defined work hours are blurring the separation between the personal and professional. The risk of burnout, along with financial and job precarity, is further contributing to stress and anxiety experienced by the working-age population. Historically, mental health and wellbeing initiatives have been dismissed as unnecessary but the research is increasingly showing how implementing supports contributes to the reversal of employee burnout as well as a reduction in stress, turnover, and absenteeism.


There is a burgeoning interest in utilizing digital health strategies to support employee mental health with over $16 Billion invested in novel digital health companies over the past few years. One such way is the use of extended reality technologies such as Augmented (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).

 

Virtual reality’s role in mental health is not new. As a form of exposure therapy, VR has been used in psychotherapy to help individuals with anxieties, phobias, and trauma. Recently however, VR has permeated into corporate organizations as a tool to manage workplace related stressors. As a therapeutic tool to support employees, extended reality technologies have been used in a few broad areas: a) to inoculate the user from stress, b) to build resiliency, or c) to provide a platform for employees to mentally step away from their stressful work.

 

STRESS INOCULATION

As a medium to train stress inoculation, VR can improve stress tolerance through dosed exposure. VR provides a safe environment where individuals can be repeatedly exposed to specific stressor (e.g., rude clients, high-risk situations), presented in progressively increasing doses or in a realistic manner while the user performs the required task. The user can make errors at little-to-no cost, and obtains feedback about effective responses. By gradually reducing the individual’s physiological response to the stimulus, and preparing them to respond rather than react, VR can allow people to continue to work in environments which may previously have been viewed as stressful. This is the principle underlying the use of VR to assist individuals who experience traumas, phobias or work in high-stress environments such as the military, emergency healthcare workers, or evacuation teams.

 

STRESS MANAGEMENT

VR can also be used to manage stress and increase resiliency.  The use of VR for relaxation and mindfulness is one of the fastest growing applications of VR in mental health at the workplace . By providing an immersive, engaging, and controlled environment VR environments can shift the user’s attention away from the work even if temporarily. Training users to become aware of the body’s state along with the use of relaxation and breathing techniques have been shown to reduce perceived level of stress, with a carry-over effect observed in other domains of their personal lives. While these techniques can also be delivered through audio instructions, the sense of presence created by an immersive environment has been observed to be superior.


ESCAPISM

VR environments can transport users to scenic locales outside of the ordinary , to counteract the routine work environments that employees typically experience. For example, individuals who were immersed in a virtual green space at work such as hiking through a forest demonstrated lower levels of physiological stress indicators, better relaxation and reduced distractibility  at work (biophilia hypothesis). Certain advanced systems can incorporate biofeedback (heart rate, respiratory rate etc.) allowing the user to experience a personalized adaptive response.

 

Studies investigating the application of VR in work-setting have reported objective changes in brain waves using EEGs , reduction in blood pressure, and resting heart rate and subjective changes such as improved focus, reduced anxiety, and improved perceived quality of life. VR works by training individuals to detect triggering events, develop effective coping skills, display positive adaptations and regain a functional and physiological equilibrium even after exposure to stressors.

 

The expansion of digital health along with the ease of access to immersive technologies makes VR-based programs attractive for mental health management at the workplace. Investment in mental health initiatives leads to increased engagement, improved productivity, greater retention rates, reduced time for “return-to-work” after illness/leave, and attracts stronger talent while making the workplace “safer”. Importantly, organizations investing in mental health programs report a median ROI of $2.18 .  While it may not be suitable for some individuals, VR can be used as preventative health intervention tools when used as an adjunct to therapies provided by licensed professionals. Along with other systemic supports such as healthcare coverage, paid leaves, peer-support networks, clear work-life separation, VR can be an effective tool to improve the overall health of your workplace.


Gayatri Aravind is Dark Slope’s Science Director and Advisor on Learning Science. Contact us to learn more about how your organization can use XR technologies to help improve the well-being of your workforce.

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