In the second article of our expert insight series into managing and understanding the impact of enterprise stress, we take a look at some of the exciting advancements in technology which could help mitigate the impact of workplace stress.
(Recap here on the physical impacts of stress and the real-world consequences for organisations.)
VR and immersive technologies are emerging as one interesting way to manage stress.
We recently visited Immersion, a digital health laboratory based in Jersey and met with consultant cardiologist Dr Andrew Mitchell and VR expert technologist Dr Austin Gibbs to investigate using immersive technologies to treat and manage stress across the enterprise.
What is VR and Immersive Technology?
Immersion defines it as “the application of devices that blur the line between the physical world and digital or simulated world, thereby creating a sense of immersion.”
Virtual Reality (VR) is a completely immersive experience in which users are taken from their real-world surroundings and placed virtually into an entirely new digital environment.
Augmented Reality (AR), users can still see the environment around them, but digital content is overlaid into their space.
Immersive technology encompasses innovations that bridge the gap between machines and the human mind. Artificial intelligence, where the machine is constructed to respond like the mind, and extended reality, where the machine influences the perceptions of the mind.
VR and Healthcare
The digital health lab conducts research into how these immersive technologies can be used to impact the delivery of healthcare across a wide range of areas.
One area they are currently examining is VR’s ability to generate physiological effects, in particular to stimulate a stress response.
By giving the sensations of emotional states whilst maintaining the therapeutic window to connect with the person, VR could open up a wide variety of implementations in healthcare, for example:
- Distraction and exposure – distracting a person’s attention away from something unpleasant, such as pain or traumatic thoughts and be immersed in a calm virtual environment. It can also provide effective therapy for specific phobias or PTSD.
- Motivation and engagement – encouraging people to engage in a treatment such as physiotherapy by making a virtual game fun or competitive, or can provide new perspectives such as going on a tour of the human body and seeing lung damage from smoking, giving an emotional component to lifestyle advice.
Fearless: VR in Action with the B-Secur Team
Using VR could help us understand more about people physically experience stress and fear.
B-Secur data research manager Holly Easlea took part in an experiment at the lab to discover how immersive exposure therapy could help manage stress and anxiety.
Wearing the B-Secur module, we were able to observe her live data including heart rate and stress levels, as she experienced a programme called Fearless – using arachnophobia as the central stress driver.
The technology allows users to overcome fears gradually at their own pace and includes an accompanying voiceover to reassure throughout the program.
Before the experience began, Holly’s baseline stress levels were measured via HeartKey which continuously monitors the ECG and derives a quantitative measurement of a person’s current stress state.
The two minute baseline was captured and displayed a steep spike just as Holly put the headset on – in anticipation of what was to come.
The first visual to appear on Fearless was a cartoon drawing of a spider, on a virtual computer screen. The voice over reassured Holly and she was in control of when she was ready for the next stage.
As Holly progressed, the images of spiders became more realistic and soon a small spider appeared to walk slowly across the virtual desk. It was soon joined by some fast-moving, scuttling spiders, Holly’s stress levels were clearly starting to rise.
Holly’s stress levels aligned with the sections of the experience as intended. After the initial spike you can see a series of peaks and troughs that align with the voice over – helping to reduce stress levels before the next level of exposure.
It was an unusual experience. It definitely invoked my levels of anxiety, even though I knew it was a virtual environment. I can definitely see however that continual exposure by this means would really help a phobia.
This response is in line research conducted into VR exposure therapy, with 83% of patients showing a significant improvement in how they deal with spiders.
How Could This Technology Help Us Manage Enterprise Stress?
Combining the deep health data insights of ECG monitoring with the immersive techniques being developed could create a powerful therapeutic approach to mitigating chronic stress in the workplace.
ECG monitoring using products such as HeartKey offers accurate, in-depth insights into stress that delivers key trending data to individuals and their employing organisations to help them understand peak stress points within their working experience.
Dr Gibbs said:
“We are on the cusp of a new era in health and education, with total spending on immersive technology predicted to balloon from $9.1 billion in 2017 to nearly $160 billion in 2021.
“I’m a passionate advocate of the power of data within healthcare. Understanding how individuals are using live, trending data direct from their unique heartbeat is really intriguing to me as a clinician.
Bringing together this level of health insight with the results we are seeing with Immersion’s work using VR and AR to engage and educate healthy behaviours could be transformative.
Many thanks to Dr Austin Gibbs and Dr Andrew Mitchell for sharing the immersive experience with us – we're looking forward to seeing where this technology will lead next.
To find out more about immersive technology check out Dr Austin Gibbs’ talk during Jersey Tech Week here.