PITTSBURGH — Many workers fear a robot will one day take their job. Now, a new study finds our mechanical co-workers may also be driving more people to do drugs and abuse alcohol. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have found that American workers are more likely to report mental health problems and instances of substance abuse if they work alongside robots.
Although the same report found that employees who work with robots are less likely to suffer serious injury while working, researchers say the development of robotics may lead to even more destructive results than an on-the-job accident.
“There is a wide interest in understanding labor market effects of robots. And evidence of how robots affected employment and wages of workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector,” says Pitt economist Osea Giuntella, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics, in a media release.
“However, we still know very little about the effects on physical and mental health. On one hand, robots could take some of the most strenuous, physically intensive, and risky tasks reducing workers’ risk. On the other hand, the competition with robots may increase the pressure on workers who may lose their jobs or forced to retrain. Of course, labor market institutions may play an important role, particularly in a transition phase.”
Robots don’t seem to be a problem in other countries
The researchers examined data from workplaces and organizations on workplace injuries throughout the U.S. during this study. They found that for every measured increase in robot exposure in the labor market, there was a drop in the number of work-related injuries each year. Overall, for every standard deviation increase of robot exposure, injuries fell by 1.2 cases for every 100 workers.
Unfortunately, researchers also found that the more people work alongside robots, the number of drug or alcohol-related deaths increased by 37.8 cases per 100,000 people. Moreover, communities working next to robots also saw a small increase in the local suicide rate and the number of mental health issues people reported.
To compare these issues to the global labor market, the team investigated the effect of using robotics in German workplaces. Although both countries saw a decrease in the number of physical injuries taking place on the job, Germany did not experience the same problems regarding mental health.
So, why are Americans the only ones appearing to suffer mentally from sharing their workplaces with machines?
“Robot exposure did not cause disruptive job losses in Germany; Germany has a much higher employment protection legislation,” Giuntella says. “Our evidence finds that, in both contexts, robots have a positive impact on the physical health of workers by reducing injuries and work- related disabilities. However, our findings suggests that, in contexts where workers were less protected, competition with robots was associated with a rise in mental health problems.”
“There has been an intense debate on 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 adds.
The findings are published in the journal Labour Economics.