Battling Zoom fatigue and burnout with...VR headsets

Strapping on a VR headset could be one way organizations can help workers deal with stress, but it isn’t a quick fix for issues like burnout and Zoom fatigue.
article cover

Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

For white-collar workers who’ve spent the last couple of years hunched over laptops on their couches, smiling pleasantly into an infinite abyss of Zoom meetings, burnout has been pervasive. Zoom fatigue is now a widely recognized work-induced malady studied by university researchers, and many remote workers say they have trouble balancing work and their personal lives.

With images on screens surrounding remote workers like a labyrinthine maze of fun-house mirrors, it might seem like the last thing a burned-out employee needs is to strap on a VR headset to detach from the rigors of the digital workplace. Nevertheless, some health care organizations are transporting their workers to the metaverse—a network of connected, 3D, virtual environments where people can interact through avatars and spatial audio—as a means of combating stress. It’s also a venue where employees in other industries can share laughs and simulate the water-cooler revelry they’ve lacked since many offices went offline in March 2020.

“Isolation is a real challenge in remote work because you can actually go through the whole day and never see somebody in real life,” Rachel Kim, VP of corporate communications and employee experience at the digital staffing platform Wonolo, told HR Brew. “Virtual reality solves for that in a lot of ways; being able to come together in a different space, being able to have fun…[and] actually partner with your team.”

But will logging on to the metaverse to talk about last night’s shocking episode of The Masked Singer with your work colleagues really do enough to foster connectedness while tamping down burnout and fatigue? It may not be such a simple solution, Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication and the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, warned.

“For some knowledge workers staring at technology and screens [for a] 60-hour work week, do they want to quote, unquote ‘calm down’ by putting a headset on? I think it depends on the type of person, the type of job, and then of course, the type of VR,” he said.

VR for mental health

Using VR to address mental health issues isn’t a scientific moon shot or even a new idea. It’s been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, body image disturbances, anxiety, depression, and other conditions, according to myriad studies in recent years.

VR’s application in the workplace has potential, Nicholas D. Thompson, an assistant professor and director of research for the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Health Trauma Center, told HR Brew. “We know that there are key things that work for distress tolerance,” he explained. “There’s also strategies which we can teach through virtual reality, which typically [we] would teach in person, as therapists, such as grounding exercises, distress tolerance techniques, and…using VR, you can really immerse the individual into this treatment.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Thompson is currently leading the Virtual Reality Stress Reduction Intervention program at VCU, which studies a group of health care workers as they attempt to decompress from the pressures of their jobs through relaxing VR journeys to Hawaiian beaches and tranquil forests. It’s a method that’s been used on hospital workers during the pandemic, in Newport Beach, California and in Italy, and in a trial by researchers at Ohio University.

Thompson described the therapy as just one method for helping frontline workers during the pandemic. “This is not a fix or a one-shot deal with mental wellness. This is about just as many as many resources as possible. Some people may not even want to get near VR, and that's okay. It’s about having as many tools as you can have in your toolbox to address the wide range of needs of people,” Thompson said.

Metaverse meetups

Since the pandemic hit, various organizations, including Loom, Realeyes, and Review Round, have tried to engineer a communal vibe by hosting off-site gatherings for employees in the metaverse.

Employees at the collaborative work management tool Trello experimented with a VR offsite in 2021, gathering virtually in a digital rendering of the company’s New York City office. By sending everyone on his team an Oculus headset, the company’s head of product, Michael Pryor, said they were trying to re-create a lot of the “serendipity that you would have in an office space.” In their downtime, Trello employees don their headsets and join in impromptu VR golf games, Pryor said.

For any organization curious about the metaverse, Bailenson advised having a specific task in mind, such as addressing burnout or building camaraderie. “VR wins when it solves a hard problem,” he said.

The broader question of how organizations will further incorporate virtual reality into their mental health programs and rapport-building exercises is largely unanswered at this point, he added. “The world is full of hype right now where everyone says VR is going to be used for all these types of things,” he cautioned.

Bailenson believes VR is a “home run for clinical use cases.” But “for this general burnout, it’s probably going to be a good tool for some people, but not a magic pill.” —SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.