The UK’s professional body for HR, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) was only in its infancy when the second industrial revolution heralded the birth of modern production lines and a completely new way of working. Back then, horses were the real losers. Millions were literally put out to pasture as automation and electricity took control of transport and production. In the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, some commentators are concerned that a similar mass redundancy is about to happen to drivers.
In reality, for most of us, it may be individual tasks rather than whole jobs that are automated. But as well as the fear of losing one’s job, rapid technological changes are already having a major impact on our mental health and wellbeing. This is likely to accelerate in the coming years, and HR must be ready to respond.
"HR should help to ensure that the mental health impact of any organisational change is properly considered"
The risk of work intensification and social isolation
New technology has undoubtedly replaced many dangerous or physically exerting tasks but, in many workplaces, it has also increased stress through work intensification and social isolation. As Acas research found, “technology has shifted threats away from physical health and towards mental health.”
One of the case studies in our research illustrates what can happen with the introduction of even relatively low-tech. Nurses in an NHS Trust were given iPads to help speed up treatment and reduce the amount of paperwork. As with most workplace change, there were positive and negative repercussions. The nurses liked the greater time with patients but missed the social interaction that used to happen in the shared office while writing up notes. They liked the flexibility the technology enabled but were aware that it blurred the line between work and home life.
There is also the growing impact of invisible technology. The Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and others have warned of the dangers of ‘algorithmic management’, where software programmes give instructions to workers, rather than line managers. This was very noticeable in another case study in our report. One employee at a manufacturing plant commented that “they are giving you a list of the order of how to do the work. You can’t turn round and say ‘I think we should do it in this order’.” The degree of autonomy employees have is significant because it crops up in nearly all metrics for job satisfaction and the quality of work. It is something to keep a close eye on as jobs are transformed.
Of course, the role of HR is also being revolutionised. For example, the emergence of AI chatbots means that what were once key HR functions are now being driven by software. A report from the Institute of Employment Studies predicts that major cultural shifts are coming to HR, as workers come to demand the same kind of easy digital access to HR functions and tools as they currently expect in their consumer lives. Culturally, the report suggests, “there will be a ‘service now’ climate.”
Within the next few years, HR professionals may find themselves increasingly expected to focus on the use of data to monitor, measure, and assess the workforce and how to improve productivity, engagement, and hopefully, employee wellbeing.
The way for HR to respond
My top three tips for HR to meet these challenges are:
1. See mental health as the new landscape we all live in. Mental health is no longer a landmark to be navigated around; it is an integral and often complex part of all aspects of our lives. This means HR should help to ensure that the mental health impact of any organisational change is properly considered.
2. Focus on communication and consultation. There is often what Acas describes as a ‘human lag’ between the introduction of new technology and the way policies and practice change. In an interesting case in the USA last year, 8,000 Marriott International employees went on strike at the sudden imposition of new automation in the hospitality sector. This led the employer to offer the workforce 165 days’ notice of any new automation. Ideally, notice provides time for discussion, understanding, and where appropriate, consensus.
3. Gather as much evidence as possible on what interventions work best for helping promote positive mental health. There are all the usual channels, such as staff surveys, which should include questions about mental health and wellbeing. Training line managers in having good conversations with staff will also aid disclosure and early interventions. The sooner you know about any mental health problems, the more personalised and targeted your responses can be.
It is often said that the one attribute that humans have that cannot be matched by robots, is emotional intelligence (EI). As workplaces are transformed by automation and algorithms, EI may be more important to the HR profession than anything else. HR managers will also need growing levels of data literacy as the information collected on staff keeps growing. This will bring to the fore all kinds of ethical questions about monitoring and surveillance. Enhancing employee wellbeing may involve some sort of trade-off between a desire to help people and the pressure to keep an eye on them.