Mental Health

Robots may get the job done faster, but they could be harmful to employees’ mental health

University of Pittsburgh researchers find drug and alcohol abuse may increase when robots are introduced to the workplace.
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Disney Pixar/Wall-E via Giphy

· less than 3 min read

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Picture this: Wall-E conducting performance reviews. Thanks to recent technological advancements, robots may soon be up to performing your least favorite tasks.

The case for autonomous, robotic employees is nothing new, and while technologists like Elon Musk warn that robots may take over jobs from people, some business leaders argue that robot coworkers (sometimes referred to as “cobots”) could actually make the workplace better for employees by reducing their workload. New research by scholars at the University of Pittsburgh found that while robots usually reduce errors and injuries when employed in factory settings, exposure to robots could negatively affect employees’ mental health.

What’s happening? While Americans with robot coworkers may be less likely to be injured on the job than their cobot-less counterparts, the research, published in the October 2022 issue of Labour Economics, found that they are 10.5% more likely to die as a result of drugs or alcohol abuse.

“On one hand, robots could take on some of the most strenuous, physically intensive, and risky tasks, reducing workers’ risk,” Osea Giuntella, an assistant professor of economics at University of Pittsburgh and coauthor of the research, told the university publication Pittwire. “On the other hand, the competition with robots may increase the pressure on workers who may lose their jobs or be forced to retrain.”

Yes, but...The study found that there were “no significant effects” on the mental health of people in Germany working alongside industrial robots. Its authors noted to Pittwire that Germans have more employment protections than Americans and as such, Rania Gihleb, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and another coauthor of the study, added that they might not consider robots “competition.”

The report cautions that more research is needed to understand how changing job markets and economic conditions may affect robots’ impact on humans.

Until then, maybe just have a robot get everyone’s coffee.—KP

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HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.