New technology is often hailed as the UK’s economic saviour. But have we appreciated AI’s potential for radically altering workplace relationships and impacting our mental health, asks Acas’s Adrian Wakeling.
The US comedian Carrie Snow once said new technology “brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other”.
This sentiment is echoed in a new policy paper from Acas and the IPA that finds there are likely to be significant winners and losers as technology continues to shape the way we work. And to minimise the negative effects, three key workplace issues need to be addressed now.
Safeguarding our mental health
Acas research, carried out by the IPA in 2017, found that “technology has shifted threats away from physical health and towards mental health”. It has replaced many dangerous or physically exerting tasks, but increased stress through work intensification and social isolation.
It seems as if the battle between life’s natural “integrators”, who see the blurring of work and home life as a positive thing, and the “segmenters”, who feel anxious without a clear line between the two, has been won by the integrators. But if we should now aspire to work-life integration rather than work-life balance, much of the working population will become stressed by smartphone fatigue, working too many hours and never getting to the bottom of their email inbox.
New technology seems to create modern work problems at the same rate as it creates efficiency gains and labour-saving advances. The nurses in our research were well aware of this: they were given iPads to allow them to receive their daily schedules remotely and complete patient documentation. They welcomed the reduced paperwork and more time with patients, but were concerned about less time with colleagues for information-sharing and peer support, and a blurring of work and home life.
New technology has been heralded as the most likely solution to the UK productivity gap with our international competitors. It may indeed help improve efficiency, but who is going to benefit most? A TUC report found 51% of workers expect any benefits of technology to be “hoarded by managers and shareholders”, rather than shared equally. What is often promised to workers is a shorter working week, but this has been slow to take off. Do employers need to be braver and set the trend rather than waiting for others to do so?
The other risk to trust at work is around our concept of fairness. As Henry Kissinger pointed out in his essay on the threats posed by AI, if we are to teach machines to make fair and just decisions on our behalf, we first need to reach a unified vision of what we think is fair and just. Although algorithms can work well, they can also embed and amplify human bias if not managed and monitored carefully.
We are also seeing an increasing concern over the issue of employer monitoring or surveillance of their staff. If there is going to be a trade-off between greater surveillance and monitoring on the one hand, and greater investment in employee wellbeing on the other, then this needs to be communicated effectively.
Managing change effectively
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is basically a huge change management exercise. Despite the almost weekly polls on the subject, there is no consensus about whether new jobs will outnumber lost jobs in the new age of automation. A recent meta-review by MIT Tech identified 18 different predictions and counting. What we can safely say is that:
- We should be focusing on what tasks might be done more efficiently, rather than what jobs
- The skills that will be valued will change. Although emotional intelligence is highly sought after, we need to be realistic.
There will be those who are left behind by the new skills race. The deconstruction of jobs into their human and automatable parts needs to be handled sensitively to minimise undermining job security. Sufficient time needs to be set aside for consultation and supporting people to retrain and reskill. During the second industrial revolution, there was a 30-year gap between the invention of the conveyor belt and the creation of the moving assembly line that facilitated mass production. It feels like we won’t have such luxury this time around.
We should be asking ourselves now about the impact that technology and new ways of working will have on our mental health. We should be thinking about what will happen to employee voice when employees don’t report to managers. We should be reaching a consensus about what fairness looks and feels like if managed by algorithms. New technology needs to work for everyone, whoever they are and whatever they do.