Developing Leaders Through VRT-Based SIT

By Laura P. Dannels, Vice President & Chief Learning Officer, WellStar Health System

Executive development needs to continually update itself to keep pace with the challenges and demands organizational leaders face. From fostering compelling visions to shepherding staff to navigating harrowing competitive waters, today’s executives must have a robust set of skills while maintaining personal and professional agility. Executive stress can mean organizational costs in the form of absenteeism, presenteeism, poor quality, and turnover.

Although organizations have responded to this problem by creating various wellness programs in initiatives, the onus remains on executives to do the hard work of creating and maintaining a new lifestyle. Executives need other alternatives for learning how to manage stress. This article briefly discusses stress in the executive office, executives’ needs for resilience, and virtual reality-based stress inoculation training as a means for developing executive stress coping skills.

Executives and Stress

Stress is a non-specific physiological response that emerges when the body faces any demand. Successful stress management requires the individual to move beyond mere reaction to sharpening our self-management, Managing stress successfully involves more than relying on the automatic symptom-reducing reactions to stress, even though these could be helpful.

Specifically, the nature and elements of the workplace can either intensify pressure and stress or, alternately, help relieve. For example, factors that tend to deepen stress, include such things as: long work days, excessive workload, time demands, task difficulty, absence of down time, monotony, and substandard work conditions.

Stress can arise from the feeling that one is not equipped to tackle the job or deal with the situation at hand. As a result, some researchers,argue for the need to address workplace health differently—specifically by considering the various features of work (i.e., psychological, physical, social) that serve as demands and resources.

When executives learn to effectively manage stress, they may develop resilience,which involves the idea of being pliable, elastic, and flexible. Generally, it is used to describe how people recover from adversity. When used to refer to structures, it denotes the power of a material to return to its original form after being put under physical stress. From a human factors perspective, resilience refers to the ability, within complex and high-risk organizations, to understand how to avoid failure and how to obtain success. It describes how people learn and adapt in settings that are fraught with gaps, hazards, trade-offs, and multiple goals. Yet, resilience lacks a clear definition in psychology: no single agreed-upon definition exists, and researchers use various approaches for exploring how resilience operates. Resilience "refers to a class of phenomena characterized by good outcomes in spite ofserrgular concept encompasses resilience; rather, it is multi-dimensional, dynamic over the life course, and context-dependent.

Virtual Reality Training-Based Stress Inoculation Training

Executives’ stress responses can be modified through stress inoculation training (SIT), wherein they are given exposure to stressors within a controlled environment for the purpose of developing the skills they need to not feel so stressed. SIT is carried out in three stages: conceptualizing the stressor, building the skills to deal with the stressor and rehearsing responses through exposure, and applying the skills in real-life situations. Past research suggests that anxiety declined after 72 hours of exposure to a traumatic event.Moreover, overall PTSD risk was diminished.

Virtual reality (VR) has evolved significantly since its early days in the late 1980s. At that time, VR relied on goggles and headsets. Today, complex technologies engage trainees’ emotional and cognitive processes and are considered to be among the most effective training approaches available. A study carried out at Yale University School of Medicine indicated that VR trainees were able to outperform trainees who did not complete the VR surgical simulation training.

Visual Reality Training-Based Stress Inoculation Training

Laura P. Dannels, Vice President & Chief Learning Officer, WellStar Health System

Virtual Reality Training (VRT) refers to the creation of realistic and immersive simulations of 3D, 360-degree environments for trainees. These environments are created using interactive software and hardware and experienced or controlled by movement of the body or as an immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer. VRT allows individuals to receive opportunities for concrete experience through multiple simulated learning modules. Individuals are introduced to information through instruction, exploration, or assessments. Individuals also spend time in reflective observation during and after the debriefing process. Reflection continues as individuals move from simulation to simulation. Active experimentation is achieved when individuals apply their new knowledge gained from their previous simulation experiences. Individuals can apply and test their new skills in simulated environments to determine if they achieve the desired results. During the VRT process, individuals engage in abstract conceptualization, make decisions and conclusions, and reflect on new skills; this ultimately results in modified behavior and enhanced resiliency.  Once VRT is completed, individuals can implement the acquired skills in a real-world environment with enhanced resiliency and performance outcomes.
VRT allows trainees to simulate risky conditions within highly controlled environments. Organizations favor VRT because this training modality can recreate realistic real-world simulations, and the training can rather easily be deployedto students that are dispersed across a broad geography. This makes VRT highly scalable and cost-effective. Moreover, thanks to VRT’s immersive nature, it appears to multiple learning styles, as it incorporates visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning of complex concepts and theories. The simulations also offer rapid feedback and ability to assess peers and instructors. Finally, VRT allows for the deconstruction of complex information into manageable learning objectives.

  Although executives face substantial challenges and may experience substantial stress as a result, options are available to reduce their stress. One such tool is SIT, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy designed to cultivate individuals’ ability to tolerate their stress 

VRT research suggests that using VRT-based SIT is currently done by law and military organizations. Study findings indicate that VRT simulations that incorporated high-stress training situations yielded superior performance metrics as opposed to VRT simulations that included less stressful situations. Past research additionally supported the hypothesis that VRT-based SIT offers trainees a sort of immunity to stress-related psychological disorders after experiencing a traumatic event.

VRT-based SIT, by its nature, is portable and scalable. It also allows for extensive adaptation to the training objectives of the situation and the learning needs of the trainees. As technology continues to advance, VRT also is becoming less costly. Simulation-based training enables people to receive instruction within seemingly risky environments, without leaving a controlled and safe learning environment. Moreover, the training situation allows trainees to be repeatedly and rapidly expose themselves to the stressors until desensitization or a sense of immunity to stress emerges. This increases the likelihood that trainees would not panic in a real environment.

VRT also is used fairly extensively in medicine. Several studies also reported that VRT SIT training could be more effective than real-world training systems when factors such as cost, time expenditure, performance outcomes, and adaption to stressful situations are considered.


Although executives face substantial challenges and may experience substantial stress as a result, options are available to reduce their stress. One such tool is SIT, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy designed to cultivate individuals’ ability to tolerate their stress.  Approaches like this are critical adjuncts to traditional stress management and wellness approaches currently touted within organizations. Perhaps the most effective forms of SIT may be administered using VR, as past studies have shown that VR trainees outperform those who did not complete VR. It would be advantageous to examine how organizations may incorporate this type of training for executives.


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