Is artificial intelligence alleviating stress at work or causing it?

We live in times of constant change. The rapidly increasing speed of business – a result of the expectation of more, better and faster results – means that organisational practices must be regularly adapted and improved to face growing competition. This has a profound impact on employees who must be flexible to new solutions within their companies.

The scale of the expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) is already affecting many economic and social areas, and it raises concerns about ethics, safety, transparency, privacy, education, working standards, laws and regulations and democracy.

That’s why this year, for instance, an open debate about the challenges posed by AI has started at an EU level. Governments, social partners, scientists and businesses are all in-volved, and now you can join the European AI Alliance, “a forum engaged in a broad and open discussion of all aspects of artificial intelligence development and its impacts”. Organisers are hoping this alliance will help shape the impending changes in a way that is positive for as many people as possible.

There is, of course, no doubt that AI has an important and direct impact on the world of work and working conditions. According to forecasts by McKinsey Global Institute, only around 5 per cent of all occupations are fully automatable and in the case of 60 per cent of all occupations, at least 30 per cent of all activities are technically automatable. This means that in most cases, only some elements of a job, rather than entire jobs, will be replaced by AI. Does this provide any comfort to those who are afraid of losing their jobs? I’m not sure: being made redundant and a needing to adapt to the new requirements of a job are both stress triggers.

The professions in which the process of automation and application of AI will have the least impact are primarily those jobs that require high cognitive skills and direct contact with other people, such as psychiatrists and psychologists, lawyers and fashion designers. While jobs in agriculture, transport, banking and financial services, manufacturing and other industries will be the most affected. We already can observe reductions in employment in those sectors, and those that stay employed work under continued organisational changes and increased time-pressure.

So how can we face all those challenges? What qualifications will we need to cope with the situation?

Most analysis indicates that, in a world where change is constant, our adaptive intelligence is crucial to survive. We need to be flexible in our skills and approach. The World Economic Forum identified cognitive skills (creativity, curiosity, initiative and adaptability), social and emotional skills (collaboration) and technological skills as the most important skills needed for the 21st century that are currently missing from standard curricula.

Most young people have ample opportunity to develop such skills but what about working adults, over 40, who followed the so-called “learn then earn” education model? How many of them are flexible enough to acquire all the necessary skills to stay active on the labour market for at least the next 25 years?

Careful design and implementation of AI means less stress for all

Changes at work, in one’s environment, team, relationships or home life trigger neurological and physiological responses that a person does not control, mainly due to stress and resistance to change. One of the main causes of work-related stress and burnout is excessive work. My experience shows that people also complain now about the poor quality of the results of their work due to constant changes and the pressure of competition, amongst other factors. Understandably, this leads to great frustration.

That is why addressing the psychological aspects of change implementation is crucial for the success of the whole process – because in the end, it is people who are involved at every stage of artificial intelligence implementation, from its creation and adoption to its end-use. If poorly handled, employees may pay an unnecessary cost in form of anxiety, stress, frustration and even burnout.

Stress resulting from the implementation of new technologies and AI solutions can be both positive and negative. Positive when it relates to facilitating work and tasks, the opportunity for personal development and participation in the new projects, and opening of new perspectives, amongst others. But more importantly, it can be negative when a person fears being dismissed, when they are unsure of what is required of them, or when they need to retrain or obtain new qualifications and skills.

Excessive stress can lead to various physical and mental disorders. And the health of employees largely determines how long a person can and will want to pursue his or her career.

At a time when the retirement age is being increased, it is in the interest of businesses but also the wider economy, for employees to stay healthy for as long as possible. Otherwise excessive stress at work could cause a drop in overall business performance, increased absenteeism and increased accident or injury rates.

That’s why at a time when AI is playing an ever-expanded part in our lives, we need to demand workplaces that provide encouragement, opportunity and support for employees to develop and use their skills and capacities effectively. Workplaces that are aware of the stress caused by change, and that are willing to help employees acquire new skills that work with, and not compete against, new technologies.

Only healthy, highly-skilled and productive workplaces enable people to perform at their best at all ages. In my opinion, only by focusing on people rather than the ability of machines, can we foster true innovation and the successful adoption of new technologies.