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Industrial Robots Exacerbate Job Dissatisfaction, Study Finds

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Robot working

As some studies have shown, robots may increase a company’s productivity, but they can make people feel like their jobs are less rewarding.

Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Colorado State University in the US recently examined the impact of robotic automation on worker happiness and motivation. They found that the adoption of industrial robots can take a mental toll on workers – more so on those with repetitive jobs and less so on those with non-routine jobs.

This is coupled with previous research showing that robotic automation depresses wages and employment.

In a paper titled “Robots, Meaning, and Self-Determination,” published in the journal Research Policy, authors Milena Nikolova, Femke Cnossen, and Boris Nikolaev observe that rapid technological advances have raised concerns about the impact of technology on employment and have sparked a great deal of academic research.

They argue that there has been less exploration of the non-monetary impacts of automation and how workers respond to them. They therefore chose to examine how industrial robots affect the meaning of work – how workers perceive their labour as valuable, meaningful, or purposeful – and self-determination – the the extent to which workers experience autonomy, competence, and relationships.

They point out that the adoption of industrial robots can harm work relationships by reducing human interaction. It would also reduce the need for creative problem-solving, diminish learning opportunities, and limit the use of skills. If robots and algorithms determine tasks and their execution, it may reduce worker autonomy.

The authors observe that robotic automation is not necessarily harmful and may be positive, noting that machines can eliminate the need to perform boring, repetitive tasks. While adrenaline addicts may complain about bomb-disposal robots and space surgeons, it makes sense to delegate these tasks to machines.

To assess the non-monetary impact of robotic automation, the authors analyzed worker-level survey data from 20 European countries and 14 industries in 2010, 2015, and 2021. They compared this data with industry data on changes in the number of robots per 10,000 workers.

The authors found that robots make workers feel worse – unless they control them.

“Our main finding is that robots undermine the meaning and autonomy of work,” write Nikolova, Knudsen, and Nikolaev.

Specifically, doubling the number of robots leads to a 0.9 percent decrease in the meaning of work and a 1 percent decrease in autonomy.

They observe: “Across all industries in our sample, the average growth rate of robotization between 2005 and 2020 is 389% (almost quadrupling).”

In some specific industries, robot adoption is much more advanced. The authors note a 26-fold increase in the mining and quarrying industry during the same period, “which represents a significant loss of meaning and autonomy.”

They observe that the automotive industry is the one that has adopted the most industrial robots. They argue that if the food and beverage industry – which already ranks in the top five for robot use – increased its use of robots (by a factor of 7.5), food and beverage workers would experience a 6.8 percent drop in job meaning and a 7.5 percent drop in autonomy.

One way to mitigate the loss of autonomy is to give employees control. “Specifically, working with computers-controlling machines completely offsets the negative effects of automation on autonomy,” the authors note, adding that education and skills also mitigate the loss of autonomy.

However, the study suggests that giving a worker a computer console does not offset the reduced sense of meaning due to the use of robots.

The authors conclude that understanding how automation affects people’s perceptions of work is important to ensure worker productivity and health, as well as to minimize turnover.

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