AI and wearables are scaring the wellbeing out of workers

We thought everyone was thrilled about being spied on and having their jobs taken by bots

A survey of UK workers suggests that quality of life declines as exposure to newer technology including wearables, robotics, and AI rises in the workplace.

The study, published by the Institute for the Future of Work (IFOW), quizzed thousands of workers to come up with its conclusion, which it said has significant implications for policy, regulation, and employers.

Not all technologies are tied negatively to wellbeing, however.

"Results showed that digital information and communication technologies correlated with improved quality of life, whereas newer and more advanced technologies were correlated with reduced wellbeing," the study [PDF] says. Those correlations held across various demographics and roles and "after accounting for more influential factors," the study notes.

In other words, give workers access to computers, messaging tools, and other connected technologies that give them the ability to work with more freedom and flexibility and they're happy. Force them to wear smart devices or inject AI into their jobs and the opposite is true.

It's hardly surprising, but as the report points out, it's the first time someone's bothered to actually do the work to triangulate worker wellbeing and tech exposure.

"Research and public policy have tended to treat technology and wellbeing separately, and disproportionately focus on job loss and employment," the authors write in a summary brief [PDF]. "Far less attention has been given to how workplace technologies are impacting job quality, and workers' quality of life."

If you've followed recent news about cutting-edge business technologies like AI you probably aren't too surprised about the IFOW's findings – after all, we've been reporting on the threats to jobs posed by AI and corresponding reports that the technology would "augment" millions of jobs in the next few years with regularity.

Companies like IBM have even said openly that they intend to replace workers with AI. It's no wonder the tech makes worker wellbeing suffer – when employees hear their boss has AI aspirations or plans to monitor them more closely at work, it's natural for the cortisol levels to spike.

The study didn't investigate the cause of that negative correlation with exposure to new technology, but said previous research has demonstrated why AI, robotics, and worker monitoring technologies may be a stressor.

"Such technologies may exacerbate job insecurity, workload intensification, routinisation and loss of work meaningfulness, as well as disempowerment and loss of autonomy, all of which detract from overall employee wellbeing," the study says. 

Good vs bad automation

That doesn't mean new technologies necessarily spell doom for employee happiness – it's all about implementation.

In organizations with HR philosophies that emphasize employee wellbeing over productivity, there was a positive correlation with quality of life, and the same goes for workplaces where employees feel they have their rights respected at work.

"The results of this research lead us to hypothesise that the relationship between technology use and wellbeing may be mediated by a range of factors including work-related capabilities and job quality," the authors conclude. They note, however, that such a hypothesis needs additional research, and caution against using the results as a one-size-fits-all view of tech in the workplace.

Employers who don't want an office filled with miserable drudges should involve everyone affected by new technologies in the implementation process, and ensure they have access to information needed to help them understand the role such technology will play in their work. Policies also need to be enacted to incentivize firms adopting advanced tech to prioritize employee wellbeing, the paper notes. 

"A future of 'good automation' is possible … but this will take concerted action and alignment across different departments and domains," the researchers say. ®

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