When AI and automation come to work you stress less – but hate your job more

It's better to work for the Man than the Machine

Applying AI and automation to jobs can have both positive and negative impacts on workers, according to a new study.

"The impact of automation and artificial intelligence on worker well-being", by Georgia Institute of Technology boffin Daniel Schiff and Georgia State University's Luisa Nazareno, found workers in jobs that become more automated experience lower levels of stress – but their health and job satisfaction both worsen.

"Maybe automation has made your work easier, but now you're being optimized," wrote PhD candidate and study author Daniel Schiff. While optimization makes jobs simpler, workers perceive that unskilled work means their job security is not high.

"There were some interesting contradictions as we explored a few different hypotheses," Schiff wrote. "There's the optimistic outlook about more freedom on the job, but there's also this concept of loss-of-meaning. Maybe you're a truck driver, but now you're just sitting in the passenger seat. Your job's easier, but it's not necessarily better. Stress may be down, but you're not challenged or doing meaningful work."

Being constantly watched at work – a feature at certain tech-infused warehouses and distribution centers where workers are held to unsafe quotas – also makes for increased stress.

"Autonomy is a driving factor in worker well-being," Nazareno said, suggesting managers should ensure workers "don't feel like they're losing autonomy and just being surveilled and being dictated to by machines".

Inspired by images of workers protesting conditions in seemingly modern, technologically enhanced workplaces, the authors studied technology's impact on worker freedom, sense of meaning, cognitive load, external monitoring, and job insecurity.

The duo then applied a measure of automation risk to 402 occupations. They looked at 2002–2018 data containing perspectives and opinions from the USA's General Social Survey (GSS) to assess whether automation impacts job satisfaction, stress, health, and insecurity.

The result was the discovery that the control the worker felt they had over their jobs – not the stress level – most affected job satisfaction.

"One of our interesting conclusions is that this is a dynamic process," wrote Nazareno. "Different things are going on. We tend to think of stress as a bad thing, and it can be. But not all stress is bad, and not all stress is good. Maybe a good job can be stressful, creating a welcome challenge. At the opposite end is boredom."

The boffins, whose research was published in the journal Technology in Society, want to reframe the conversation around automation and AI in the workforce and how it is applied.

"We recommend that firms, policy makers, and researchers not conceive of technological complementarity as a uniform good, and instead direct more attention to mixed well-being impacts of automation and artificial intelligence on workers."

Another recent study showed that motivations for workplace automation adoption vary from country to country. In some places automation is employed to offset a rapidly ageing population or other workforce shortages, while in The United States automation is primarily seen as a cost-cutting measure. This raises the question of whether data from other countries about worker well-being in the face of AI would yield different results. ®

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