Industrial robots make people feel worse about jobs and themselves

Study finds workers' sense of meaningfulness and autonomy declines with automation

Robots may make companies more productive, as some studies have suggested, but they make people feel that their jobs have less meaning.

Researchers with the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Colorado State University in the US recently looked into the impact of robotic automation on workers' sense of well-being and motivation. They found that the adoption of industrial robots takes a mental toll on workers – more so for those with repetitive jobs and less so for those with non-routine responsibilities.

Add that to prior research showing robotic automation depresses wages and employment.

In a paper titled "Robots, meaning, and self-determination," appearing in the journal Research Policy, authors Milena Nikolova, Femke Cnossen, and Boris Nikolaev observe that rapid technological advancement has sparked fears about the impact of technology on jobs, and led to numerous academic studies.

Less explored, they argue, is the non-monetary impact of automation and how workers cope with it. So they chose to examine how industrial robots affect both work meaningfulness – how workers see their labor as valuable, significant, or purposeful – and self-determination – the extent to which workers experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Industrial robot adoption, they note, can reduce human interactions to the detriment of work relationships. It can also diminish the need for creative problem solving, curtail learning opportunities, and limit skill utilization. And it can reduce worker autonomy if robots and algorithms decide on tasks and their execution.

Robotic automation isn't necessarily harmful and may be positive, the authors observe, pointing out that machines can eliminate the need to perform dull, repetitive tasks. While adrenaline addicts might bemoan bomb disposal robots and space surgeons, there's a fairly good case for delegating that work to machines.

To assess the non-monetary impact of robotic automation, the authors analyzed worker-level survey data from 20 European countries and 14 industries for the years 2010, 2015, and 2021. They compared that with industry-level data on changes in robots per 10,000 workers.

What the authors found is that robots make workers feel worse – unless they control the robots.

"Our key finding is that robots harm work meaningfulness and autonomy," wrote Nikolova, Cnossen, and Nikolaev.

Specifically, doubling the presence of robots leads to a 0.9 percent decline in work meaningfulness and a 1 percent decline in autonomy.

"Across all industries in our sample, the average increase in robotization between 2005 and 2020 was 389 percent (almost a four-fold increase)," they observe.

And in specific industries, robot adoption was far more advanced. The authors point out that in mining and quarrying, there was a 26x increase over the same time period, "implying a substantial loss in meaningfulness and autonomy."

The automotive industry, they observe, has seen the most adoption of industrial robots. And they suggest that were the food and beverage industry – already top five in robot uptake – to increase its robot use to match (a 7.5x increase), food and beverage workers would see a 6.8 percent decline in work meaningfulness and a 7.5 percent decline in autonomy.

One way to mitigate the loss of autonomy is to give workers control. "Specifically, working with computers – being in control of the machine – completely offsets the negative consequences of automation for autonomy," the authors note, adding that education and skill also mitigates loss of autonomy.

But giving workers a computer control console doesn't counteract the sense of diminished meaningfulness that accompanies robot adoption, the study suggests.

The authors conclude that understanding how automation affects the way people feel about work is important for ensuring worker productivity and health, and for minimizing turnover. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like