As we enter a new year, we enter a new season of innovation, change, and advancement in technology. According to a recent article from McKinsey & Co, “every company is a software company” and “software is the world” (Gnanasambandam, Palaniappan, & Schneider, 2022). And while the advancement of technology improves productivity, recent research indicates that new technology can have a negative effect on employee well-being. According to researchers, Nazareno and Schiff, “while automation and artificial intelligence may improve productivity or wages for those who remain employed, they may also have mixed or negative impacts on worker well-being” (2021). Below we examine the nuance of how technology and AI can influence workers’ well-being.
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Technology as a substitute vs. a compliment
There are two key strategies that employers can use when applying technology to the workplace: substitution application and complimentary application.
Technology as a substitute: using technology to automate routine tasks
The substitutionary application of technology is associated with “labor displacement” (Nazareno & Schiff, 2021). According to IBM, automation is “the application of technology, programs, robotics, or processes to achieve outcomes with minimal human input.” Additionally, according to research from Brookings, automation has led to decreased employment in careers that are both “cognitively routine and manually routine” (Aaronson & Phelan, 2020). Employers using the substitutionary strategy of technology and AI seek to substitute or replace employees conducting “cognitively routine and manually routine” (Aaronson & Phelan, 2020) tasks. As researchers Aaronson & Phelan point out, the increased substitutionary automation of these routine tasks correlates with “increases in the demand for jobs requiring interpersonal tasks” (2020).
For an in-depth discussion on automation visit our insights article: “The Age of Automation.”
Technological as a compliment: using technology to improve productivity
Researchers Nazareno and Schiff define “technological complementarity” as “the use of technology to complement workers” (2021). This can be done through the use of digital tools such as messaging systems and business applications/software that streamline and centralize routine tasks, make decisions, and organize documents (IBM, n.d.). Instead of replacing the employee, these tools are given to employees to increase their efficiency, skill, and/or productivity.
Technology and AI in the workplace is not a “uniform good”
Researchers Nazareno and Schiff state that “while automation and artificial intelligence may improve productivity or wages for those who remain employed, they may also have mixed or negative impacts on worker well-being” (2021). In their research, they discuss that while the general view of “technological complementarity” is positive, their study shows that “technological complementarity with workers is not a uniform good” (Nazareno & Shiff, 2021). By using a “series of regression analyses” with data regarding well-being and automation risk, they found that workers who face an increased automation risk experienced less stress, but “worse health, and minimal or negative impacts on job satisfaction.” They close their article by encouraging more research in the complexity of impacts that AI and technology can have on employees that are not substituted or replaced by advancing technology (Nazareno & Shiff, 2021).
Don’t assume that all automation is good. Consider the overall well-being of employees. Will automating this task reduce their sense of fulfillment or purpose at work? How might automation impact health? Could it decrease the opportunities your employees have to be up-and-moving?
Fear of substitution by technology increases insomnia
In a research article published in 2022 from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers discovered that employees with “automation anxiety” or fear of their jobs being replaced by machines experienced increased levels of insomnia. They state that although there are “positive aspects of recent technological innovations, fears are mounting among workers that machines will inevitably replace most human jobs in the future.” In their study, they found that top concerns for employees facing automation in their work included a “decrease in income,” “being transferred to an uninteresting job,” and facing “difficulty in using skills and ability.” They conclude that “policies such as worker retraining are needed to alleviate workers’ undue anxiety” (Baek, Yoon, & Won, 2022).
Fear of substitution by technology reduces job satisfaction
According to researchers Schwabe and Castellacci, workers who are “not directly affected by automation” may still fear becoming unemployed as a result of technological advances in the workplace. They state that “this fear of a possible future replacement is important because it negatively affects workers’ job satisfaction.” Their research also suggests that “automation in industrial firms in recent years has induced 40% of the workers that are currently in employment to fear that their work might be replaced by a smart machine in the future. Such fear of future replacement does negatively affect workers’ job satisfaction at present.” However they also state that this “negative effect is driven by low-skilled workers” who carry out “routine-based tasks” and are at the highest risk for automation replacement (Schwabe & Castellacci, 2020).
Examine employee expectations about automation. Do they fear losing their jobs? How has the role of AI and new technologies been communicated to employees?
The key to success is how AI technology is implemented
Researchers Loureiro, Bilro, and Neto used a mixed-method approach of semi-structured interviews and questionnaires to study “employees’ perspectives” regarding the application of AI technology to the service industry. From their conducted interviews they found that there are a variety of positive and negative aspects of applying AI to the service industry. Their findings are outlined in the graphic below.
From these findings, they conclude that AI can be helpful “in specific situations,” particularly in avoiding mistakes, “performing repetitive tasks,” and being overall support for task completion. However, they state that “interaction requires adaptation and readjustments at the workplace as AI is a recent technology.” They also found that if the application of AI technology in the workplace reduces the “relationships between human co-workers,” there can be a negative impact on “trust and individuals’ happiness”. The questionnaire conducted supported their hypothesis that “benign stress positively influences employee happiness via employee engagement.” From this, we can conclude that when employees are engaged and AI is a support system in the workplace, employees “tend to form more positive feelings” about AI.
The questionnaire also revealed that “when human employees recognize that working with AI means that they have the support and empathy of the AI- even if the work demands more effort- humans tend to feel benign stress” which they state can increase “happiness” in engaged workers. Additionally, their research found that having a “sense of ownership and pride in belonging to a service firm operating with AI algorithms and agents” and being recognized for a “job well done by working with AI” can increase employee engagement.
They summarize by stating that while “AI technology itself may not create job stress or happiness for workers” the application of AI technology should be considered by managers and business leaders. The negative effects of AI can be explained by “fear of change and the unknown,” fear of losing “human relationships in the workplace,” lack of confidence in using AI, and fear of “being replaced by AI.” They state that “these negative aspects are deeply associated with the lack of information and uncertainty about the future of AI work evolving in terms of technical and soft skills” (Loureiro et al., 2022).
Examine how AI will be integrated into the workplace. Do employees see this as something that can support their work or do they see it as a threat to their workplace relationships and careers? Are your employees engaged in their workplace currently? How can you increase or transition their engagement to working with AI?
How AI technology can benefit mental health
Researchers Wei and Li used data from the 2018 China Labor Force Dynamics Survey to examine the “impact of AI on the depressive symptoms of manufacturing workers” with consideration for the effects of overtime work and their work environment. Their findings indicate that while the environment of the employee explains 11.509% of “workers’ mental health,” the implementation of AI “can reduce the psychological depression scores of manufacturing workers by 1.643 points.” They also point out that the integration of AI did not impact the mental health of those born after 1980. They conclude that the use of AI and improving the work environment of manufacturing workers (born after 1980) “is conducive to improvements in the mental health of manufacturing workers.”
When discussing the application of findings, they state that AI should be used to “improve the work environments within the manufacturing industry in order to enhance the mental health and well-being of workers.” One suggestion they have for applying AI to the workplace is using AI to complete tasks that employees are “unable or unwilling to perform and that are conducted in unfavorable working environments” (Wei & Li, 2022).
Because AI only benefited the mental health of employees born after 1980, employers should consider the demographics of their workplace before implementing AI. Additionally, AI should be used in conjunction with improving the workplace environment overall via the completion of dangerous or unfulfilling tasks. What tasks do your employees complete today that they don’t enjoy or face discomfort/danger when completing? How can AI alleviate some of these tasks?
AI technology can increase job satisfaction in IT employees amidst personnel shortage
Researchers McMurtrey, Grover, Teng, and Lightner indicate in their research that “combating the IT personnel shortage through task automation” is correlated with an “increase” in “worker satisfaction,” which can ultimately decrease turnover. Using a survey given to IT professionals, they discovered that IT professionals “in an environment where computer-aided software engineering tools are used” experienced “more job satisfaction” than those in management. However, they state that two factors: the sophistication of the AI technology used and “managerial competence” were also factors that led to increased job satisfaction (McMurtrey et al., 2015).
AI can be used to reduce stress in workplaces that are experiencing personnel shortages, particularly those in IT. However, managers should be trained in general management skills and how to apply AI to the workplace.
AI that redirects employees to preferred work increases job satisfaction and performance
Research from the Journal of Nursing Administration found that by automating data entry from “patient measurement devices to electronic health records,” there was a 20% reduction in errors, a reduction in transfer times, more time for nurses to perform “direct patient care,” and a reported increase in job satisfaction. They also state that these findings are “associated with improvements in quality, work performance, and job satisfaction, key goals of nursing leaders” (Bauer, John Wood, Plass, & Richardson, 2020).
Consider what tasks are taking your employees away from their preferred or more fulfilling job duties. How can AI make the completion of these tasks easier and allow more time for fulfilling work?
Implications for business leaders today
The above research offers several key insights for executive coaches to consider when coaching executives and business leaders. Consider the following:
While AI is a strategy for managing reduced workforce participation, the management skills of current employees are still an essential part of leadership (McMurtrey et al., 2015).
Employees can have a variety of emotions regarding AI and new technology. Many of these are related to the fear of being replaced, losing human connection at work, and/or not feeling prepared to use AI. These fears can negatively influence health (Nazareno & Shiff, 2021), sleeping patterns (Baek et al., 2022), and job satisfaction (Schwabe & Castellacci, 2020).
When employees do not feel threatened or anxious by the impact of AI and new technology, they can experience a variety of benefits including reduced workload, reduced stress, increased happiness (Loureiro et al., 2022), improved mental health (Wei & Li, 2022), job satisfaction (McMurtrey et al., 2015), improved work quality, reduced work errors, and improved work performance (Bauer, John Wood, Plass, & Richardson, 2020).
Human connection and empathy remain important in the workplace. AI and new technology are still not able to replace human connection.
The key to the successful implementation of AI and technology in the workplace is the skillful application of it. This includes a consideration of the effects AI and technology can have on the workplace and careers specifically. Using the aforementioned insights and research, here are questions executive coaches can ask clients regarding AI and technology in their workplace.
What are your goals in applying AI to your workplace?
How can you use AI to help your employees fulfill their most fulfilling and enjoyable work?
What are your employees’ perceptions of AI and technology? Do they fear AI and new technology? If so, why?
Is your workforce engaged? If not, consider how you can increase this before introducing new technologies.
How might management change in the face of these new technologies? Are your managers ready for this?
How do you plan to introduce new technology and AI to your workforce?
What is the “why” behind adding new technology to the workplace?
How can you implement AI in making a better workplace?
How will AI and new technology increase your employees' sense of fulfillment and wellbeing?
The application and use of AI and new technologies in the workplace is a nuanced topic that requires intentional planning, contemplation, and consideration for the effects it will have on each individual workplace. While some researchers indicate that the application of AI and new technologies can have a negative impact on workers (Nazareno & Shiff, 2021), others outline a variety of positive benefits that AI can have in the workplace. At its core, the application of AI and new technologies can be beneficial if they are tailored to the individual workplace.
Aaronson, D., & Phelan, B. (2021). The Evolution of Technological Substitution in Low-Wage Labor Markets. Economic Studies at Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Phelan-Aaronson_Full-Report-Tables.pdf.
Baek, S. U., Yoon, J. H., & Won, J. U. (2022). Association between Workers’ Anxiety over Technological Automation and Sleep Disturbance: Results from a Nationally Representative Survey. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(16), 10051. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph191610051.
Bauer, J. C., John, E., Wood, C. L., Plass, D., & Richardson, D. (2019). Data Entry Automation Improves Cost, Quality, Performance, and Job Satisfaction in a Hospital Nursing Unit. JONA: The Journal of Nursing Administration, 50(1), 34–39. https://doi.org/10.1097/nna.0000000000000836.
Georgia Institute of Technology. (2019). Technology’s impact on worker well-being. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/10/211028174510.htm.
Gnanasambandam, C., Palaniappan, J., & Schneider, J. (2019). Every company is a software company: Six ‘must dos’ to succeed. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/every-company-is-a-software-company-six-must-dos-to-succeed.
IBM. (n.d.). What is automation? | IBM. https://www.ibm.com/topics/automation.
Loureiro, S. M. C., Bilro, R. G., & Neto, D. (2022). Working with AI: can stress bring happiness? Service Business. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11628-022-00514-8.
McMurtrey, M. E., Grover, V., Teng, J. T. C., & Lightner, N. J. (2002). Job Satisfaction of Information Technology Workers: The Impact of Career Orientation and Task Automation in a CASE Environment. Journal of Management Information Systems, 19(2), 273–302. https://doi.org/10.1080/07421222.2002.11045719.
Nazareno, L., & Schiff, D. S. (2021). The impact of automation and artificial intelligence on worker well-being. Technology in Society, 67, 101679. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2021.101679.
Schwabe, H., & Castellacci, F. (2020). Automation, workers’ skills and job satisfaction. PLOS ONE, 15(11), e0242929. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242929.
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