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The hidden impact of AI on workers' mental wellbeing

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

As artificial intelligence continues to evolve, the individuals behind the technology are increasingly grappling with loneliness, insomnia, and a rise in post-work drinking habits, according to recent research.


The study, revealed by the American Psychological Association on Monday, highlights an escalating concern over the mental and emotional wellbeing of AI researchers, resulting from their isolated work environment.


"Working with AI systems can lead to negative ripple effects in the personal lives of employees. As inherently social beings, humans may find this isolation challenging," stated lead researcher, Pok Man Tang.


Surveying employees from various industries across four countries, the study probed the effects of the ongoing "Fourth Industrial Revolution" fueled by AI. While the relatively small sample size, comprising about 800 office workers globally, limits the study's conclusive power, it does shed light on potential issues and preventative measures.


According to the authors, AI-reliant employees are navigating a drastically different social landscape, which can lead to feelings of social disconnection. “For ages, humans have relied on their inherent systems to assess the quality of interpersonal relationships. These systems function optimally in environments where social interaction is prioritized, much like primitive tribal communities or traditional workplaces," the authors noted in their research.


However, the rise of digital, non-social AI systems seems to be pushing employees towards surrogate social interactions with robotic aids, prompting a shift towards an ‘asocial system’.

The ramifications of these changes are already manifesting among tech workers in the U.S. and Malaysia, Taiwanese biomedical researchers, and real estate consultants in Indonesia.


In Tang’s study, the participants were tasked to either continue working with AI technologies or take a break for three weeks, while their effects on them and their families were monitored. The study revealed that the more employees engaged with AI, the more likely they were to adapt in both constructive and harmful ways.


Interacting with AI spurred “a stronger need to socially connect with other human coworkers,” the study found. Simultaneously, these AI-using workers were more inclined to offer assistance to their colleagues, a possible sign of their loneliness and yearning for human contact.


However, this increased social inclination, born out of loneliness, was coupled with a surge in harmful behaviors.


“The very conditions that prompted greater levels of assistance also triggered heightened levels of alcohol intake and sleeplessness post-work, possibly compromising mental wellbeing and triggering a negative cycle,” the researchers observed.


They suggested that managers could mitigate such issues by creating an environment less saturated with AI systems, thereby allowing employees to sustain healthy levels of social interactions with their colleagues.

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