A tranquil virtual reality experience to reduce subjective stress among COVID-19 frontline healthcare workers

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Objective The novel coronavirus-19 (COVID-19) has taken an immense physical, social, and emotional toll on frontline healthcare workers. Research has documented higher levels of anxiety, depression, and burnout among healthcare workers during the pandemic. Thus, creative interventions are needed now more than ever to provide brief, accessible support to frontline workers. Virtual reality is a rapidly growing technology with potential psychological applications. In this study, we piloted a three-minute Tranquil Cinematic-VR simulation of a nature scene to lower subjective stress among frontline healthcare workers in COVID-19 treatment units. We chose to film a nature scene because of the extensive empirical literature documenting the benefits of nature exposure and health. Methods A convenience sample of frontline healthcare workers, including direct care providers, indirect care providers, and support or administrative services, were recruited from three COVID-19 units located in the United States. Inclusion criteria for participation included adults aged 18 years and older who could read and speak in English and were currently employed by the healthcare system. Participants viewed a 360-degree video capture of a lush, green nature preserve in an Oculus Go or Pico G2 4K head-mounted display. Prior to viewing the simulation, participants completed a brief demographic questionnaire and the visual analogue scale to rate their subjective stress on a 10-point scale, with 1 = ‘Not at all stressed’ to 10 = ‘Extremely stressed.’ We conducted paired t-tests to examine pre- and post-simulation changes in subjective stress as well as Kruskal-Wallis tests and Mann-Whitney U tests to examine differences by demographic variables. All analyses were conducted in SPSS statistical software version 28.0. We defined statistical significance as a p-value less than .05. Results A total of 102 individuals consented to participate in the study. Eighty-four (82.4%) participants reported providing direct patient care, 73 (71.6%) identified as women, 49 (48.0%) were between the ages of 25–34 years old, and 35 (34.3%) had prior experience with VR. The pre-simulation mean stress score was 5.5±2.2, with a range of 1 to 10. Thirty-three (32.4%) participants met the 6.8 cutoff for high stress pre-simulation. Pre-simulation stress scores did not differ by any demographic variables. Post-simulation, we observed a significant reduction in subjective stress scores from pre- to post-simulation (mean change = -2.2 ±1.7, t = 12.749, p < .001), with a Cohen’s d of 1.08, indicating a very large effect. Further, only four (3.9%) participants met the cutoff for high stress after the simulation. Post-simulations scores did not differ by provider type, age range, gender, or prior experience with virtual reality. Conclusions Findings from this pilot study suggest that the application of this Tranquil Cinematic-VR simulation was effective in reducing subjective stress among frontline healthcare workers in the short-term. More research is needed to compare the Tranquil Cinematic-VR simulation to a control condition and assess subjective and objective measures of stress over time.