Are There Health Risks to Using Virtual Reality Headsets at Work?

Virtual reality may be transforming the workplace, but strapping into a virtual reality headset can also carry consequences. Find out how virtual reality headsets work and if they are bad for you.

By Kenna Hughes-Castleberry
Oct 11, 2023 6:00 PM
A man using a virtual reality headset for work
(Credit: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock)

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Virtual reality (VR) is becoming more popular in corporate offices, thanks in part to the rise of remote work in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. VR headsets offer many potential employee benefits, from a more private and customizable virtual office to more engaging training sessions. According to Deloitte, by 2025, around 70 percent of employee training will include a VR headset.

But this increase in virtual training is already driving up the number of hours employees wear a headset, causing many experts to become concerned about VR's potential pitfalls — particularly when it comes to our physical health.

How Do VR Headsets Work?

A VR headset is a wearable device that immerses the user in a computer-generated, three-dimensional virtual environment.

When it comes to the workplace, employees have the opportunity to engage in workplace simulations that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive, hazardous or unfeasible to replicate in conventional settings. By donning a VR headset, personnel or trainees can immerse themselves in diverse workplace scenarios.


Read More: Virtual Reality Is Improving Fast — Where Is It Taking Us?


Are VR Headsets Bad for You?

Like any technology, VR headsets can have potentially negative effects if used improperly or excessively. Researchers are increasingly worried that more time spent in a VR headset will exacerbate the symptoms shorter headset times already cause, like nausea, disorientation (cybersickness) and other issues such as neck and shoulder strain.

Alexis Souchet, a cognitive ergonomicist at the University of Southern California, says that it's important to inform the general public that hardware and software providers do little to asses the long-term risks of using VR.

“We don't have enough information on the risks for users to deploy these technologies at work within the five coming years,” says Souchet.

In short, while an employee may feel more motivated or energized in their customized space while plugged into a VR headset, it may come at the cost of their physical health.


Read More: Some Researchers Debate if We Are Living in a Computer Simulation


How Are Companies Adopting VR?

While VR headsets first became popular due to video games, their usefulness is quickly evolving to fit company needs. Businesses like Toyota, Delta Airlines, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and BMW are already testing the effectiveness of VR in employee training for soft skills like leadership and teamwork.

These skills can be hard to come by. For example, a 2021 Harvard Business Review article found that 89 percent of executives had difficulty hiring individuals with soft skills, forcing many companies to train their employees in these fields.

In years past, businesses may have relied on online modules to teach employees project management or collaboration techniques. Now, many have turned to VR to get the job done, which may be more effective.


Read More: Scientists Are Trying to Give Robots Social Skills


What Are The Benefits of VR Training?

The benefits of VR training include completing training modules faster and a heightened emotional attachment to the material.

In a recent survey on VR employee training, researchers found that employees progressed through the training modules four times faster than in-person and 1.5 times faster than online. Additionally, the employees felt they had a stronger emotional connection to the lesson content, four times more than in-person courses and twice as much as learning online. These findings suggest that VR can save companies significant employee training time.

“It's living in the age of capitalism,” says Jens Grubert, a professor at Coburg University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Germany. “Companies do that because they want to save money, period.” However, these companies may unknowingly jeopardize their employees’ health when trying to cut costs.


Read More: How Remote Work Changed Our Lives — and Our Health


Are VR Headsets Bad For Your Eyes?

Using VR headsets may cause you to experience eye strain or cyber sickness. When using a VR headset, the pixelated screen is close to your eyes, which can tire out eye muscles, causing eye strain.

Though most VR headset companies ensure their product’s ergonomic design and comfort, there can still be issues with long sessions of headset use.

“With the current generation headset, the viewer experiences something similar to a 3D film; your eyes focus on a certain distance but converge on a different distance, which is unnatural,” Grubert says. “This can lead to cybersickness and to different side effects. That's something the current generation displays don't address well.”

Unfortunately, most studies on VR’s health-related side effects only look at usage under an hour. To address this knowledge gap, Grubert and his team had 16 individuals wear a VR headset for a full 40-hour workweek, then repeat the same conditions, minus the headset, for a second week.


Read More: Investigating Screen Time's Impact on the Attention Span


The Long-Term Effects of VR

Their study, published in IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics in 2022, was one of the first to look at the long-term effects of VR. The results revealed a concerning level of cybersickness, and two of the participants had to drop out after day one due to migraines, anxiety and nausea.

“In our study, we observed that most people did not prefer VR for long-term use, but they were open to it,” says Snehanjali Kalamkar, a research associate at Coburg University. “What the general public should be more aware of these, I wouldn't call it a disadvantage, but these limitations of VR that they're not aware of at the moment.”


Read More: The Science of Migraines


How to Use VR Responsibly

While the results from the 2022 study proved concerning, Grubert and his team believe that VR can still be used in a long-term setting, just more responsibly.

“I would say you shouldn’t use it for the whole week all the time,” adds Verena Biener, a Ph.D. student at Coburg University and the study’s first author. “But maybe for specific tasks for shorter periods, where you benefit from the VR, like using special tools that are only possible in VR.”

The researchers hope that their study can inspire other needed long-term VR studies and VR companies to promote more sustainable VR usage.

“Limiting your use time to under 30 minutes is the easiest way,” adds Souchet, who recommends frequent breaks to avoid headaches and eye strain. “I would advise not to rush into using VR if your company didn't base its adoption on a rational assessment of the benefits and the risks by considering workers’ health and safety.”


Read More: Do Brain-Training Apps Really Work?

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