New research: automation is harmful to the mental health of its human co-workers

Diet and lifestyle 3. nov 2022 2 min Assistant Professor in Economics Rania Gihleb, Associate Professor of Economics Osea Giuntella +2 Written by Morten Busch

Robots improve industrial efficiency and can even improve safety for the people who work with them. However, new research suggests the infamous flip side of the coin. The people who work with the robots suffer negative mental health effects – and are more likely to misuse drugs or alcohol. Much evidence indicates, however, that the mental effects can be avoided if you are aware of them.

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In recent decades, robots have taken over some of the most strenuous, physically intensive and risky tasks – reducing workers’ risk of accidents and improving the efficiency of many industrial production processes. However, the robots might also have increased the pressure on workers, since introducing robots may eliminate jobs, forcing workers to retrain. A University of Pittsburgh study has looked into how industrial robots have affected workers’ safety and health in Germany and in the United States.

“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 - but not in Germany. The probable reason for the difference is the fact that robot exposure has not caused disruptive job losses in Germany. Our findings suggests that labour market institutions are an important mediator of the negative effects of robots on mental health,” explains Rania Gihleb, Assistant Professor in Economics, Department of Economics, University of Pittsburgh.

Driven by manufacturing firms

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers report more than 5000 fatal job-related injuries and nearly 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses each year. Based on these numbers, the total estimated cost to employers and individuals is USD 171 billion every year.

“Automated systems can offer safety benefits to workers, since robots can help to prevent these injuries and other negative health effects resulting from working in high-risk environments. The flip side is increased concern that the robots may harm workers’ mental health and act as an additional workplace stressor. However, we still know very little about how they affect physical and mental health,” says Osea Giuntella, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Pittsburgh.

The study explored the relationship between the adoption of industrial robots and workplace injuries using data from the United States and Germany, two of the leading robot adopters in the world, by using data on workplace injuries from workplaces and organisations.

“We found that an increase reduces work-related annual injury rates. These results are driven by manufacturing firms, whereas we – maybe not surprisingly – found no significant effects for sectors that do not adopt industrial robots,” explains Luca Stella, Research Affiliate at Free University of Berlin.

Employees in both countries experienced less physical injury risk with greater exposure to robotics in the workplace, with Germany having 5% fewer injuries. Interestingly, the researchers found differing results regarding mental health.

“An increase in exposure to robotics in the United States resulted in more adverse mental health effects, whereas workers in Germany had no significant change in mental health when exposed to robotics. The workers in the United States who are more exposed to robotisation experience more than 10% higher rates of drug- or alcohol-related deaths and 15% more mentally unhealthy days – with more stress, depression and emotional problems. Communities working alongside robots even saw slight increases in suicide rate and mental health disorders,” explains Tianyi Wang, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Economics, University of Pittsburgh.

Market institutions may play an important role

Overall, the new results were largely consistent with what the researchers had expected. As automation leads to reduced physical job intensity and risk of physical injuries, it might also lead to increased economic insecurity, since workers might fear losing their job.

“Robots and artificial intelligence are radically changing the role of workers in production processes, so these findings then beg the question: Why does workplace automation in the United States seem to result in many more negative outcomes than in Germany? Our findings suggests that, in contexts in which workers are less protected, competition with robots was associated with a rise in mental health problems,” says Tianyi Wang.

Germany is a world leader in robotics, and robot penetration is much higher than in the United States. However, evidence suggests that the effect of robot penetration on manufacturing jobs in Germany was mostly mitigated by the growth of jobs in services.

“Germany also has much more comprehensive legislation on employment protection. This might explain why the effects on mental health may differ in Germany from those in the United States. So, our study clearly shows that the development of robotics can lead to other destructive results in workers’ lives than physical injury. Labour market institutions may therefore play a very important role, especially in a transition phase as more and more robots are introduced,” concludes Rania Gihleb.

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