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Robots are driving US co-workers to substance abuse, mental health issues, finds study

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Automation improves the industry, but is damaging the mental health of its human colleagues.

A University of Pittsburgh study suggests that while American workers who work alongside industrial robots are less likely to suffer physical harm, they are more likely to experience adverse mental health effects — and even more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

These findings come from a study published last week in labor economics by Pitt economist Osea Giuntella, along with a team that included Pitt colleague Rania Gihleb, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics, and Tianyi Wang, who is pursuing a postgraduate program after receiving his Ph.D. at Pitt.

“There is a broad interest in understanding the labor market effects of robots. And evidence of how robots impacted worker employment and wages, particularly in the manufacturing sector,” said Giuntella, an expert in labor economics and economic demography and an assistant professor in the Department of Economics in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

“However, we still know very little about the effects on physical and mental health. On the one hand, robots could perform some of the most strenuous, physically intensive and risky tasks, reducing the risk to workers. On the other hand, “Competition with robots can increase the pressure on workers who may lose their jobs or need to retrain. Of course, labor market institutions can play an important role, especially in a transitional phase.”

The study used data from workplaces and organizations about workplace injury in the United States to find that an increase in robots’ exposure to robots in a given regional labor market results in a reduction in annual work-related injuries. In total, injuries have been reduced by 1.2 cases per 100 employees. Meanwhile, in areas of the United States where more people were working alongside robots, there was a significant increase of 37.8 cases per 100,000 people in drug or alcohol-related deaths. In addition, communities collaborating with robots saw a slight increase in suicide rates and mental health problems.

In addition to American companies, the researchers also examined the effects of robotics on workers in Germany. Workers in both countries experienced a decrease in the risk of personal injury from increased exposure to robotics in the workplace, with Germany experiencing a 5% decrease in injury. Interestingly, the team found different results related to mental health.

While an increase in US exposure to robotics resulted in more adverse mental health effects, German workers saw no significant changes in mental health with exposure to robotics. These findings then beg the question: Why does US automation at work seem to lead to far more negative outcomes than in Germany?

“Exposure to robots did not cause disruptive job losses in Germany; Germany has much higher labor protection legislation,” Giuntella said. “Our evidence shows that, in both contexts, robots positively impact workers’ physical health 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 an increase in mental health problems.”

Giuntella has studied the effects of robotics on the workforce before, with a 2021 study published in the Journal of Human Resources† This previous research focused on the effects of robotics on men’s economic stature, marital status, and marital fertility.

“There is an intense debate about the effects of robotics and automation on labor market outcomes, but we still know little about how these structural economic changes are reshaping key life-course choices,” Giuntella said after that publication in 2021.

The findings of this 2022 study show that the development of robotics could lead to even more destructive outcomes in workers’ lives than bodily harm. These findings show that labor market settings are an important mediator of the negative effects of robots on mental health.


Robots good for gender equality, not so good for marital stability/fertility: study


More information:
Rania Gihleb et al, Industrial Robots, Workers’ Safety, and Health, labor economics (2022). DOI: 10.116/j.labeco.2022.102205

Provided by the University of Pittsburgh


Quote: Robots are driving US colleagues to drug abuse and mental health problems, according to study (June 2022, June 29) retrieved June 29, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-robots-co-workers-substance-abuse- mental.html

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