Robots may reduce physical injuries but increase substance abuse and mental health problems

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Automation improves industry but is harmful to the mental health of its human collaborators.

A University of Pittsburgh study suggests that while American workers who work alongside industrial robots are less likely to suffer physical injuries, they are more likely to suffer adverse mental health consequences — and even more likely to abuse with drugs or alcohol.

Those findings come from a study published last week in Labor Economics by Pitt economist Osea Juntela, along with a team that included Pitt colleague Rania Gihleb, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics, and Tiani Wang, who is in a postdoctoral program after earning a Ph.D. in Pitt.

“There is a lot of interest in understanding the effects of robots on the labor market. And evidence of how robots have affected employment and workers’ wages, particularly in the manufacturing sector,” said Giuntella, an expert in labor economics and economic demography and assistant professor of economics in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

“However, we still know very little about the effects on physical and mental health. On the one hand, robots can take over some of the most stressful, physically intensive and risky tasks, reducing the risk to workers. On the other hand, competition with robots could increase the pressure on workers who may lose their jobs or be forced to retrain. Of course, labor market institutions can play an important role, especially in a transition phase.

The study used data from workplaces and organizations on workplace injuries in the United States to find that a one standard deviation increase in robot exposure in a given regional labor market led to a reduction in annual work-related injuries. Overall, injuries were reduced by 1.2 cases per 100 workers.

Meanwhile, areas of the United States with more people working alongside robots had a significant increase of 37.8 cases per 100,000 people in drug- or alcohol-related deaths. Additionally, communities working alongside robots saw a slight increase in suicides and mental health issues.

In addition to US businesses, the researchers also examined the effects of robotics on workers in Germany. Workers in both countries experienced a reduction in the risk of physical injuries with greater exposure to robotics in the workplace, with Germany maintaining a 5% reduction in injuries. Interestingly, the team found different results in terms of mental health.

While increased exposure to robots in the US led to more adverse mental health effects, German workers saw no significant change in mental health when exposed to robotics. These findings then raise the question: Why does American job automation appear to have far more negative outcomes than in Germany?

“Robot exposure has not caused devastating job losses in Germany; Germany has much stricter employment protection legislation,” Juntela said. “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 suggest that in contexts where workers are less protected, competition with robots is associated with an increase in mental health problems.

Giuntella has explored the effects of robotics on the workforce before with a 2021 study published in The Journal of Human Resources. This previous research focused on the effects of robotics on men’s economic status, marital status, and marital fertility.

“There has been intense debate about the effects of robotics and automation on labor market outcomes, but we still know little about how these structural economic changes alter key life course choices,” Giuntella said after this 2021 publication.

With the findings of this 2022 study, the researchers said they believe the development of robotics could lead to even more devastating outcomes in workers’ lives than physical injuries, and that labor market institutions are an important mediator of the negative effects of robots on mental health.

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