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Rehumanising the workplace: Using intelligent automation to reduce work-related stress

Which workplace stressors can be offset with automation? Stressor analysis, statistics and effects of the pandemic-mapped to tech answers.

Introduction

High-performing organisations are often also high-stress environments. Success is built by overcoming stressful situations and although a certain level of dosed stress can be a significant motivational factor, continuous exposure to high stress levels is proven to seriously reduce operational effectiveness of individuals and entire organisations. It can turn high performers into demotivated slackers, promoters to detractors, and key human assets into liabilities. It can only hinder business continuity and growth, but far worse, can cause its demise.

As the human interconnectivity via social networks becomes exponentially easier, so can the adverse effects of despondent employee culture quickly cause long-term negative effects for the organisation.  Something that was arguably much easier to fix internally can leave continued detrimental external effects. If one searches online for “why I quit {add company name here}”, most often, results will unveil reasons rooted in workplace stress. For an organisation, the volume of search results for that query should be an alert on its own, and an even bigger worry is the number of views and reads. For some of the large organisations, based on what I have had a chance to see on YouTube, these can count in hundreds of thousands. Individuals dragged into that darker park of Social Media are unlikely to consider working for companies that feature in these films.

So, I want to dive deeper into what the different stress factors are in the modern workplace and also ponder on whether some of them can be resolved with automation.

1.         Statistics on work-related stress effects on company performance, and the effects of the pandemic

A 2020 study by the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on statistics of work-related stress, anxiety, and depression in Great Britain portrays a radically worsened picture of the stress levels in the UK workforce. In 2019/20 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health.

Due to mental illnesses triggered by work-related stress, a research from MFHA England finds mental ill health being responsible for 72 million working days lost and £34.9 billion each year. They acknowledge this figure might be severely under-estimated as other institutions quote costs in the excess of £74 billion. What’s worse, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, workplace stress and its effects have heightened, and the numbers quoted above do not fully reflect the effects of the pandemic at its later stage, when the workforce had already been working under the altered conditions for a while.  

Compared to the pre-pandemic ways of working, is your work-life balance better or worse now?

  • It is worse now. (70%, 7 Votes)
  • It is better now. (30%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 10

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Research conducted by PayFit in November 2020, indicates that 85 percent of workers have experienced work-related worry since the pandemic hit in March. According to a study by Hibob, an HR services company based in New York, the overall state of employee Mental Health and well-being has dropped by a staggering 33 percent since the pandemic began.

With most employees working from home, time spent on work-related activities and projects is less visible. In other words, it has become difficult for many employers to quantify or gauge employee involvement, which in turn leaves room for a gradual and often unconscious increase in expectations. Now, companies are demanding more from workers mainly because they feel employees are contributing less or being less productive. Since the unrealistic expectation is the main cause of Mental Health problems in the workplace, heightened pressure can further exacerbate these issues. 

What are your current working conditions?

  • Working from home. (83%, 10 Votes)
  • I am between jobs currently. (17%, 2 Votes)
  • Going to work (location other than home). (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Hybrid: working from home and going to work. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 12

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Due to the coronavirus-induced economic constraints, many businesses have been forced to turn to pay cuts, furloughs, and operational changes to free up limited resources. Meanwhile, other companies have cut down their workforce to enable them to recover financially. For employees, this change entails a heavier individual workload and shorter deadlines. Working outside of contracted hours and on annual leave days or Leavism, is also prevalent throughout the British workforce, with 67 percent in HR saying it’s a very real issue for them.

Another interesting statistic is that 21% of UK employees find themselves working longer hours, leading to difficulties in either maintaining or achieving a healthy work-life balance.

The cumulative effects of social isolation, increased workload, job uncertainty, and increased expectations, portray a pessimistic outlook. It might be a good moment to reconsider whether the models under which businesses are managing their workforce are sustainable. I believe that we can learn from this and use this knowledge to improve on organisational sustainability, to reengage with the workforce in an honest and inclusive manner. This will ensure the best return on investment in human resources, not by making the employees work harder, but by enabling them to work smarter. And this is where I see automation as the key igniter for this change.

2.         Can automation really be the answer?

A rash of studies has associated automation and artificial intelligence with human labour replacement, but the recent studies also show that deploying these technologies to take over mundane and repetitive tasks can reduce the strain on workers, making the workplace more human and keeping work stress at bay. 

A recent Verint report suggests that evolving technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) can significantly reduce workplace stress. Based on the study, a handful of companies that have adopted these new techniques now enjoy low-stress workplaces. Specifically, 72% of workers who experience low-stress levels at work, attribute their access to tools and technology to increased productivity, while almost two-thirds (64%) agree that automation technology helps reduce both workload and stress. These evolving technologies are also magnets for digital natives including Generation Z and Millennials who already are comfortable and familiar with them.  Furthermore, 71% of employees said they are in support of using technology to replace manual or laborious tasks, and 69% said they believe automation will enhance their jobs, rather than replace them. 

3.         Mapping work-related stress factors to automation solutions

While researching occupational stress, I came across this well-rounded list of stress factors.

I then accompanied these with ideas for mitigating actions – how responsible automation can be leveraged to offset them and to some extent and where possible.

I hope you take these only as ideas of what might be possible, and that it triggers deeper thinking on how automation can effectively be used to reduce workplace stress.

Task design

Workload, overload and underload, pace, variety, the meaningfulness of work.

  • Adequate time to complete a task, autonomy, e.g. the ability to make own decisions about our own job or about specific tasks.
  • Shift work, hours of work.
  • Skills, abilities do not match job demands.
  • Lack of training and/or preparation technical and social.
  • Lack of appreciation, isolation at the workplace, emotional or working alone.  

Mitigating action*:
Where work is organised around tasks, consider introducing task management solutions where a task needs to be accepted by the employee together with a deadline before the work starts. Think of it as a lite version of gig economy sites such as Fiverr and Freelancer.

Buy-in assurance**:
Gamify task completion with meaningful prizes – this will, on one end, drive optimisation of task sizes which will enable easier and more comparable monitoring, and on the other end create a drive to complete more tasks within a given timeframe.

Role in the organization

  • Role conflict with conflicting job demands, too many roles, multiple supervisors/managers.
  • Uncertain job expectations/role ambiguity.
  • Lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations, etc. and level of responsibility.

Mitigating action*:
Automate recurring benchmarking of performance and tasks of an individual among their peers and against their job description.

Buy-in assurance**:
Openly communicate any findings to the individual and invite them to suggest mitigating measures

Career development

Under/over-promotion job security/insecurity, fear of redundancy either from economy, or a lack of tasks or work to do.
Lack of career development opportunities, growth, or advancement, overall job satisfaction.

Mitigating action*:
Automate KPI collation, do not ask the individual to manually enter this information. Infer it indirectly by harnessing the potential of technology.

Buy-in assurance**:
Allow all employees to nominate KPIs and vote for them. Allow them to do real-time monitoring of their performance and have a comparative view against the performance of their peers. Be open about how their performance against these KPIs will be monitored.   Enable employees to build their own automated solutions within the firm (citizen developers), or to recommend processes or products for automation – and recognise this.

Relationships at work (Interpersonal)

  • Supervisors, conflicts or lack of support, co-workers, conflicts or lack of support.
  • The threat of violence, harassment, etc. threats to personal safety.
  • Lack of trust, lack of systems in the workplace available to report and deal with unacceptable behaviour, prejudice, or discrimination.

Mitigating action*:
Automate a recurring feedback loop system.   Introduce Mental Health and satisfaction surveys after any larger changes at work or leaves i.e., project start, milestone, and end, before and after a scheduled holiday, after unplanned leaves, after organisational changes even if these do not appear to be directly impacting the individual.   Use AI-enabled data analytics with pattern detection to analyse feedback and KPI interconnectivity to build a contextual understanding of individuals’ performance.

Buy-in assurance**:
Allow all employees to nominate stress-inducing, calming and exciting events at work.
Publish individualised reports with findings and recommendations.

Organizational structure/ climate/ management style

  • Participation or non-participation in decision-making.
  • Communication patterns, poor communication, or information flow.
  • Little recognition for good job performance, lack of systems in the workplace available to respond to concerns not engaging employees when undergoing organizational change.
  • Lack of perceived fairness, who gets what when, and the processes through which decisions are made.
  • Feelings of unfairness magnify the effects of perceived stress on health, lack of support such as family-friendly policies, employee assistance programs, etc.

Mitigating action*:
Pre-empt promotions with facts and comparative views with the use of analytics. Leverage analytical tools to identify cohorts and interactions across areas considered for reorganisation to predict the reaction.

Buy-in assurance**:
Enable peer-rating and peer-level nominations.

Work-Life Balance

Role/responsibility conflicts, family exposed to work-related hazards. 

Mitigating action*:
Through the use of AI, detect individuals within the organisation who are under the threat of burnout and act pre-emptively.

Buy-in assurance**:
Automated burnout warnings and vacation time recommendations.

Workplace Conditions/ Concerns

  • Exposure to unpleasant conditions e.g., crowding, smells, etc.
  • Exposure to hazards e.g., ergonomics, chemicals, noise, air quality, temperature, etc.
  • Use of insufficiently understood technology or expectations to use an overly complex technology ecosystem.

Mitigating action*:
Add workplace condition sensors, air quality, noise, temperature, etc. Forecast office attendance with AI and pre-emptively warn employees, so they can reorganise themselves where and if possible (more on this in a future article).   Leverage AI to enhance inhouse security and health and safety monitoring (more on this in an upcoming article).   Leverage AI to analyse frequent employee activities to automatically and proactively recommend solutions such as technologies, methodologies or other materials which will help an individual deliver a task faster and easier.

Buy-in assurance**:
Expose workplace condition KPIs via dashboards within the workplace itself in a frequently visited spot.
Automated focused just-in-time promotion of tools to help employees tackle specific tasks they often deal with.
Allow employees to add their own recommendations and if these are useful, credit them.


To be clear, neither the list of work stressors nor the accompanying ideas are by any means exhaustive lists in their own respect. Further to that, depending on the industry and the type of organisation, not all might be applicable. In fact, they might only be scratching the surface. Use this as a thought-trigger rather than a guidebook.

Do you feel ideas listed above could help reduce stress in your organisation?

  • Yes (78%, 7 Votes)
  • No (22%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 9

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4.         Building buy-in

Each of the ideas was accompanied with a buy-in mechanism which would help improve the likelihood of automation adoption and positive reaction of the employee culture. At the same time effectively driving the organisation forwards in terms of operational efficiency and employee satisfaction improvements.

To further engagement and improve the likelihood of transformation success, you can even build your own workplace stressor-automated solution table, bespoke to your organisation and your employee culture.  You can do so by getting your employees to nominate key stressors, and then work with them to collaboratively come up with a plan on how to address findings using automation.

Though we have focused only on building buy-in around these specific stressor mitigators, this can be a good starting point for wider adoption of automation. Significantly broader consideration to building buy-in for automation efforts in an organisation will be a subject of one of the future posts.

5.         Conclusion

In this article, we looked into workplace stressors and discussed how we can mitigate them to an extent with the responsible use of automation. If we take a step back for an overarching look at the buy-in mechanisms proposed, we can see that what comes into focus is human interaction and making employees feel heard and involved. This is what will drive the use of automation, which will in turn, if done right, help reduce stress. We can effectively rehumanise the workspace by responsibly using automation to tackle work-related stress, and furthermore: unlock innovation and accelerate progress. In fact, the next two articles are on exactly these topics: Putting management to the test: Socially responsible automation and Innovation unlocked: Top 10 innovation inhibitors and how to address them.

Clarifications

*Mitigating action: An idea for an action that can potentially at least partially mitigate stress triggers.
**Buy-in Assurance: A Mechanism to improve the likelihood of the mitigating action generating a positive outcome.

References

Stressors and stressor descriptions updated and adapted from: Murphy, L. R., Occupational Stress Management: Current Status and Future Direction. in Trends in Organizational Behavior, 1995, Vol. 2, p. 1-14, and UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) “Managing the causes of work-related stress: A step-by-step approach using the Management Standards”, 2007.
Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2019 (hse.gov.uk)
Health and Safety at Work: Stress, Anxiety and Depression Statistics 2019: Poster A3 (hse.gov.uk)
Workplace Stress Statistics 2019, Causes Of Stress For UK Workers | Cartridge People
Almost half of employees would like less work stress in 2021 – Workplace Insight
Tackling work-related stress using the Management Standards approach – HSE
Workplace Stress – General : OSH Answers (ccohs.ca)

By Aleksandar Đorđević

I am an automation professional and enthusiast, living and working in London.
Helping organisations use automation safely, effectively, and responsibly is what I enjoy doing. I promote responsibly using technology to rehumanise the future.