Automation and Mental Health: Can Automation Make You Sick?

**NOTE: Im still on hiatus but I wanted to share something that I wrote about a completely different, yet sort of related topic. I should be back with regular Smokehouse marketing updates soon!***

This article is a bit different than what I usually write about, which is marketing advice. This comes from a different place but still, thanks to the day job, is something I know a bit about and I’ll start it off with a question:

Are you, or is someone you know, afraid of robots?

I’m not talking about some type of Black Mirror-like cyborg out of a science fiction story. I’m not talking about Terminators or RoboCop. I’m talking about a genuine fear for one’s livelihood and way of life, brought on by automation.

With all the talk of robots coming to take jobs, self-service kiosks eliminating entry-level work, autonomous vehicles on the roads taking over the transportation industry, and so on, it’s no wonder people are afraid when they hear the word “automation.”

In fact, a study conducted by Ball State University and Villanova University in 2018 showed that the fear of losing a job to automation and robotics actually was on the rise and had a direct correlation with people’s physical and mental health.

Think about this for a moment. People are so afraid of losing a job to automation they are literally getting sick. Forget the impact on productivity and loss of business income for a moment (we’ll come back to that later), and let’s focus on the human cost of this fear. As someone who’s day job works with people in the automation industry, I thought it was time to speak on this topic.

Let’s take a look at this phenomenon, see if it’s really as bad as people think, and find a few ways we can reduce the stress and fear surrounding this topic.

Are People Really Afraid? If So, Why?

The answer to the first part of that question, simply, is yes. The first thing all of us in the industry need to understand and accept is that this fear is real. It’s not media hype. It’s a legitimate issue that affects thousands — possibly millions — of people around the world.

We are basically telling workers that someday their primary income could be gone, and their jobs replaced by a machine.

We’re telling younger workers that one day soon their skill set, the one that some still haven’t even finished paying student loans to acquire, could be obsolete.

We’re telling older workers that the job and skills they’ve had for 20 or 30 years could vanish overnight, and they’ll have to start looking for a new job at 50 or 60 years old.

When you look at the reality of how the world is changing, of course people are afraid! Who wouldn’t be? These are valid concerns, and as much as some of us would like to say so, the news media is not over-dramatizing the issue for ratings.

Sure, everyone won’t be out of work and replaced by a robot in the next 10, 15, or maybe even 20 years, but for most industries, it is coming. Instead of arguing about whether it’s true, or fear-mongering about how no one will have a job in the future, we need to take a different approach. We need to understand that the concern is valid. From there, we can all have a basis to deal with the coming reality.

How Is This Stress Affecting People?

Mental health problems, stress, and general feelings of insecurity due to new technologies and automation aren’t new. For evidence, we only need to look back at the 1980s, when industrial workers struggled with issues of outsourcing and the automation of auto plants.

Also, in 1955, industrialist Sir Walter Puckey gave a speech at the Institute of Production Engineers called “The Automatic Factory: Dream or Nightmare?” in which he voiced the same fundamental concerns about automation that people have today. Even the World Health Organization was talking about this very issue back in 1958 — well before the advanced types of technology we have today.

At the heart of everything, automation promised to make workers’ lives easier, but it has, in some cases, brought fear. With fear comes stress — and stress, left unchecked, can lead to a decline in mental health. Depression, anxiety, and even, in some cases, violence, have all been reported due to fears over automation. These reports are increasing as new technologies find ways to automate jobs that they simply couldn’t before, such as bankers and even lawyers.

According to the previously mentioned report from Ball State and Villanova, workers in counties with higher levels of automation risk also reported higher levels of physical and mental illnesses. While the exact causes aren’t clear, these increases have been estimated to cost health providers up to $47 million dollars in stress-related illnesses alone.

Think about this. Technologies designed to make life better can end up costing health care systems millions, not to mention the loss of productivity for employers, and loss of wages and general well-being for employees. Imagine being so worried about the potential loss of your job to a machine that you become physically ill, wind up missing work, and adding that to your list of job loss fears!

This is the reality for thousands of people around the world. The question is, what can we do about it?

What Can Be Done?

There’s a lot of talk about and it’s true that education and retraining can help people get ready for the jobs of the future, but realistically, you can’t retrain for anything if you are so stressed out you can barely function in your current role. The first thing to do is to stop and take stock of your actual situation as it stands. This way you will know whether you even need to worry about the coming robot and AI revolution. The best way to do this is to ask yourself the following questions:

– Do I frequently need to interact with humans with some degree of creativity? For example, am I a teacher, a doctor, or a sales representative?

– Am I a part of a skilled trade, such as a plumber or an electrician?

– Does my job require real creativity, or to bring information together in complex ways? For example, am I an artist, a musician, a scientist, or a researcher?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, you can breathe a bit easier — your job is not likely to be automated any time soon. Not even the best AI today can replace your skills.

If that’s you, congratulations, but what about those who answered “no,” or those who belong to fields already seeing layoffs due to automation?

The first thing to do is to stop.

Then just breathe.

That’s right. Take a deep breath and try your best to relax.

Ok, I can hear some of you already, and I’m with you. Realistically, yoga and meditation won’t help most of us put food on the table. Neither will they stop the latest wave of automation from coming to your company — but running around terrified won’t, either.

We’ve seen time and again that the best leaders make decisions when they’re in a calm state of mind. It’s not magic or something you’re born with — staying calm is a learnable skill, just like anything else. When you look at it from that angle, relaxation may play a bigger part in helping you get ready for the future, because you will approach your next steps and be able to plan with a clear head and better insight. To help better navigate this issue, we suggest a four-step plan:

– Stop

– Breathe

– Plan

  • Do

The Four Step Plan

The first of these four steps is “Stop.” That’s right. Just stop. Stop searching the job sites; stop thinking about the future for a minute — just stop. Of course, that is going to be much easier said than done, but it’s a crucial step in resolving any crisis. You’ve most likely been running around worried about this issue for a long time now. Has it gotten you anywhere except even more stressed? Instead just rest, watch a movie, and do what you need to do to get your head right.

Once you’ve stopped, move on to step two, breathing. Take a few long, slow deep breaths. You don’t have to get all Zen guru with it, but ease that panic in the pit of your stomach and bring yourself back to the here and now. Being present in the moment is key, because if you’re too busy worrying about what is going to happen next week, next month, or next year, you won’t have the time and energy to prepare for it now. Besides, that day of reckoning might never come. If it doesn’t, you’re going to feel a bit silly that you worried your life away about something that never happened, won’t you?

Just breathe and slow down. This part also helps you get ready for the next step: planning. Have you ever seen anyone plan well when they’re freaking out? Imagine working at a plant, and an alarm goes off. Your safety inspector just stands up, throws his hands in the air, and runs in circles screaming. Not very helpful, huh? Once you’ve been able to relax a bit, move to step three.

Now that you’re in a calm state of mind and ready to make good-quality decisions, you can start planning for your future. How you do this step is totally up to you. Whether you choose to go back to school to retrain for a future-proof job, apply to a brand-new role at your company, or even start looking for a new job somewhere else, you’re in a better frame of mind to tackle the issue. You’ll be able to view the situation clearly and make the best decision possible for yourself and your family. This leads to the final step.

Your plan is made, but it’s useless until you start acting on it. Taking a few steps toward self-care is one of the best things you can do to alleviate some of the fear that comes from uncertainty. There’s nothing worse than the feeling of everything being completely out of your control, especially when it comes to your future. Creating and then executing a solid plan is a great way to relieve some of the stress this issue can cause.

The Bottom Line

Finally, I want to be the first to admit one thing: I don’t have all the answers — nobody does on either side of this issue and believe me, I’ve heard people on both sides. The future of automation is extremely complex, and no single blog article or suggestion will be right for everyone. This is just one person’s opinion from my research and from what I see from working pretty closely to people in the automation industry and people who are worried about its increasing prominence.

Also, before I wrap up, I want to stress one overall point — if you are feeling overwhelmed by frustration, anger, stress, or just feeling stuck, you aren’t alone. It’s admirable to seek help. There are many resources that can assist you with any problems you might face in your personal or professional life. Mental health affects every part of your day-to-day reality, including the people who rely on you. Don’t hesitate to seek out the help you might need to keep moving forward.

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