Robots driving U.S. co-workers to substance abuse, mental health issues

July 3, 2022

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Robots driving U.S. co-workers to substance abuse, mental health issues

An important new study suggests that while American workers who work alongside industrial robots are less likely to suffer physical injury, they are more likely to suffer from adverse mental health effects — and even more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

The findings were published in Labour Economics.

What the researchers say: “There is a wide interest in understanding labor market effects of robots. And evidence of how robots affected employment and wages of workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector,” the lead author said. “However, we still know very little about the effects on physical and mental health. On one hand, robots could take some of the most strenuous, physically intensive, and risky tasks reducing workers’ risk. On the other hand, the competition with robots may increase the pressure on workers who may lose their jobs or be forced to retrain. Of course, labor market institutions may play an important role, particularly in a transition phase.”

The study utilized data from workplaces and organizations on workplace injuries in the United States to find that a one standard deviation increase in robot exposure in a given regional labor market results in a reduction of annual work-related injuries. Overall, injuries were reduced by 1.2 cases per 100 workers. Meanwhile, United States areas with more people working alongside robots had a significant increase of 37.8 cases per 100,000 people in drug or alcohol-related deaths. In addition, communities working alongside robots saw a slight increase in the suicide rate and mental health issues.

In addition to U.S. businesses, the researchers also investigated the effects of robotics on workers in Germany. Both countries’ employees experienced a decrease in physical injury risk with greater exposure to robotics in the workplace, with Germany sustaining a decrease in injuries of 5%. Interestingly, the team found differing results regarding mental health.

While an increase in U.S. exposure to robotics resulted in more adverse mental health effects, German workers saw no significant mental-health change when exposed to robotics. These findings then beg the question: Why does American automation at work seem to result in much more negative outcomes than in Germany?

“Robot exposure did not cause disruptive job losses in Germany; Germany has a much higher employment protection legislation,” the researchers explained. “Our evidence finds that, in both contexts, robots have a positive impact on the physical health of workers by reducing injuries and work-related disabilities. However, our findings suggest that, in contexts where workers were less protected, competition with robots was associated with a rise in mental health problems.”

An earlier study by the same team showed that the increasing use of robotics in the workplace was leading to a lower male fertility rate in the US but not in Germany.

With the findings of this new study, one can see that the development of robotics can lead to even more destructive results in workers’ lives than physical injury. These findings show that labor market institutions are an important mediator of the negative effects of robots on mental health.

So, what? As we have said for years, people will accept change and innovation if they feel safe and not if they don’t. This study proves the point.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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