Can industrial robots affect the mental health of co-workers?


Automation by industrial robots may enhance the productivity and efficiency of workers, but is it harmful to their mental health?

American workers who work with industrial robots are less likely to sustain physical injuries. Still, according to a University of Pittsburgh study, they are more likely to experience negative mental health effects and abuse drugs or alcohol.

These conclusions come from a study that Pitt economist Osea Giuntella co-authored with a team that also included Rania Gihleb, an assistant professor in the department of economics, and Tianyi Wang, a post-doctoral student who received his Ph.D. from Pitt.

The effects of robots on the labor market are a topic of great interest. As an expert in labor economics and economic demography and an assistant professor in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Economics, Giuntella provided evidence of how robots impacted the employment and wages of workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

The effects on both physical and mental health are still largely unknown. On the one hand, robots could take on some of the most physically demanding, dangerous, and risky tasks, lowering the risk to workers. On the other hand, workers who may lose their jobs or be required to retrain may feel more pressure due to the competition with robots. Of course, the institutions of the labor market could be crucial, especially during a transition.

The study found that a one standard deviation increase in robot exposure in a particular regional labor market reduces annual work-related injuries. The study used data from workplaces and organizations on workplace injuries in the United States. Overall, there were 1.2 fewer injuries per 100 workers. Meanwhile, drug or alcohol-related deaths increased significantly by 37.8 cases per 100,000 people in areas of the United States where more people coexist with robots. The suicide and mental health problems rate also slightly increased in communities where robots were employed.

The researchers looked into the effects of robotics on German workers and American businesses. With more exposure to robotics in the workplace, employees in both countries saw a reduction in their risk of physical injuries, with Germany seeing a 5 percent decrease in injuries. The team discovered interesting results regarding mental health.

German workers exposed to robotics did not experience appreciable changes in their mental health, whereas increased exposure in the United States led to more negative mental health effects. These results raise the question of why American automation at work results in significantly more unfavorable outcomes than German automation work.

According to Giuntella, Germany has stricter employment protection laws than other countries, so robot exposure did not result in abrupt job losses. By lowering injuries and work-related disabilities, the evidence shows that robots positively impact workers’ physical health in both contexts. The research suggests that competition with robots was linked to increased mental health issues in environments where workers were less protected.

In a 2021 study published in The Journal of Human Resources, Giuntella examined the impact of robotics on the labor force. This earlier study concentrated on how robotics affects men’s economic status, marital status, and fertility.

The impact of automation and robotics on the state of the labor market has been the subject of heated discussion. Giuntella noted that following that 2021 publication that “we still know little about how these structural economic changes are reshaping key life-course choices.”

Based on the results of this 2022 study, it is clear that the development of robotics has the potential to have an even greater negative impact on workers’ lives than physical harm. These results demonstrate that the negative effects of robots on mental health are mediated in a significant way by the institutions of the labor market.