Why Motion Sickness May Become An Issue In The Workplace

The future is making us queasy.
Sasha_Suzi via Getty Images

The question: What causes motion sickness and who is most likely to feel sick?

The answer:
No one knows for sure when it comes to the first part of the question. Despite the fact that people have been suffering from travel-related dizziness, nausea and headaches since ancient Greece, there's still no consensus in the scientific community about what causes motion sickness.

This might be a more relevant question than you realize. While most people think of motion sickness in the context of transportation, virtual reality can also induce motion sickness, and some experts believe this will be a growing concern as the technology becomes pervasive in schools and workplaces.

The classic theory of motion sickness holds that sensory conflict, or a mismatch between what you see (the motionless interior of a car) and what your body experiences (moving through space at 40 mph in the car's backseat), disorients your senses, causing you to feel ill.

But researcher Thomas Stoffregen has developed an alternative theory, based on the premise that the human body is constantly in motion. When humans stand up, they naturally oscillate back and forth. Put that same human on a ship, however, and walking becomes much more difficult.

"The way that you move is related to whether or not you are going to get sick," said Stoffregen, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota who has spent 25 years measuring the differences in people's movements. "You’ve used those leg movements because they’ve worked. But those exact same leg movements will tend to have the effect of destabilizing you on a ship."

Women bear the brunt of motion sickness

An overarching trend has emerged over the course of Stoffregen's time in his lab: "One of the most powerful effects in the motion sickness literature is that women are much more likely than men to get sick," he said.

Indeed, a large-scale study of passengers at sea from the late 1980s found that women were nearly twice as likely as men to suffer from motion sickness while aboard a passenger ferry at sea. This may soon be a more modern concern, as 3D movies and virtual reality become a central part of not only our entertainment, but also our work.

Unless we swiftly adapt, Stoffregen anticipates that gender differences in motion sickness could create inequality in the workplace's virtual landscape.

Motion sickness could soon affect work performance

For his most recent study, slated to be published later this year, Stoffregen and his team measured the differences in body sway between men and women who were exposed to a digital stimulus that might make them sick.

"The way men swayed before they got sick was different from the way women swayed before they got sick," Stoffregen said, noting that on the whole, men are taller, weigh more and have a different body mass distribution than women. "And the way men who didn’t get sick swayed was different from the way women who didn’t get sick swayed."

Stoffregen thinks this gender difference could have massive implications for office life if virtual reality headsets become standard teaching, health care and workplace tools. It's not as far fetched as it sounds: Facebook acquired Oculus, a technology company that makes virtual reality headsets, in 2014. CEO Mark Zuckerberg listed high hopes for the platform, envisioning applications for everything from entertainment to education.

"We’ve been looking at possible sex differences in these technologies and we’ve been learning that they exist," Stoffregen said, noting that in a laboratory study, women were four times more likely than men to become motion sick from a digital stimulus.

If that result holds true for larger studies, it could pose a major problem for employers.

"If you’ve got a sex difference like that in the workplace, you’ve got some real serious social policy issues," Stoffregen said."We have a technology that, not as a human, and not in its intention, is sexist in its effects."

That said, women aren't the only group that's susceptible to motion-related sickness. Young children, especially those sitting in the backseat of a vehicle who are too small to see out the window, often report experiencing carsickness. People who've experienced motion sickness in the past, pregnant women and people with a history of migraines are also at an increased risk of feeling sick.

The better virtual reality gets, the sicker we feel

"Nobody ever got sick playing Pac-Man, but nobody ever experienced themselves in the Pac-Man world," Stoffregen said.

In comparison, first-person video games that make you feel like you're part of the action increase the likelihood that you'll treat the game like reality. You might inadvertently find yourself leaning into turns during a driving game, just like you would if you were driving a physical car.

"The problem here is that when you lean into turns in a video game, there aren’t any turns to be corrected for," Stoffregen said. If you follow Stoffregen's line of thinking, the unnecessary bodily adjustments you're making destabilize you and make you feel sick.

It's happened: You feel sick. What can you do?

If you are among the 30 percent of Americans who do suffer from motion sickness, give one of Stoffregen's tricks a try:

Stoping motion sickness before it starts:

  • If you're in a car, try to be the driver. If you can't be the driver, sit in the front seat.
  • Eat something light and bland (like crackers) before your trip. Avoid greasy food.
  • Look out the window. If you're on a boat, sit on deck and look out at the ocean, preferably the horizon.
  • Avoid alcohol, but stay hydrated by drinking clear liquids.
  • Don't try to read, and avoid looking at any and all devices.

If all else fails:

As for what will happen with virtual reality in the workplace, that should be apparent in the next few years. The consumer version of Oculus Rift is slated to drop in early 2016.

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