In summary

The use of automation technologies to track and monitor safety or productivity is widespread in supply-chain management, and it is now seeping into grocery stores, other retail settings, and even knowledge work. That is bad news for workers.

By Rachel Maguire, Special to CalMatters

Rachel Maguire is research director at Institute for the Future, rmaguire@iftf.org.

Olympian athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles received outpourings of support when they withdrew from competition recently to protect their mental and physical well-being. Their decisions to prioritize self-care over the psychologically grueling demands of their jobs were commended by mental health experts, disability rights activists and corporate sponsors. 

While the immense pressures felt by elite athletes are unique to their profession, the activities and ways work is structured can pose a direct threat to the well-being of many workers.

The use of automation technologies to track and monitor workers for the purpose of safety or productivity is widespread in supply-chain management, and it is now seeping into grocery stores, other retail settings and even knowledge work — the work of those who spend their day in front of a computer. 

At Institute for the Future, we have studied the underexplored health effects of algorithmic monitoring of workers. With support from Blue Shield of California Foundation, we created “Humans, Automated,” a short film about surveillance in the future work environment. In the scenario, warehouse workers are paired with an intelligent system intended to aid them in the rote, repetitive aspects of their jobs. Systems equipped with facial recognition technology and emotional AI detect moods and track workers’ energy level. Originally implemented to improve productivity, these systems generate automated digital “nudges” designed to influence behavior — and not just in the workplace. At home, workers are encouraged through nudges to make optimal lifestyle decisions based on this intimate analysis of their health and behavioral data.

A key implication in “Humans, Automated” is that workers lack routine contact with a boss. Digital platforms communicate direction, and workers are responsible for their present and future health and economic well-being. More of the roles and benefits historically provided by the employer (up-skilling and mentorship, for example, and health and retirement benefits) have disappeared. The film shows workers experiencing stress and anxiety due to these new work arrangements and continuous monitoring of performance, along with outside stressors related to climate disruption and displacement.

Scholars, including the late British social critic Mark Fisher, have long pointed out that not all mental illnesses stem from childhood events or biochemical compositions. Depression and anxiety can result from unsatisfying, undignified work, especially if your best efforts to earn enough to take care of yourself and your family only render you into debt. Yet, as Fisher argued, we have relegated the responsibility of caring for those experiencing poor mental health to our overburdened health systems, rather than demanding that the conditions of work stop producing these negative health outcomes. In the context of the United Kingdom, Fisher explained, “Where once workers would have turned to trade unions when they were put under increasing stress, now they are encouraged to go to their GP, or, if they are lucky enough to be able to get one on the [National Health Service], a therapist.”

Early efforts to address these and other growing challenges in the future of work have centered mostly on individual interventions that place the burden on workers themselves to improve. They emphasize stress management programs or courses to help workers improve their resiliency skills, implying that individual skill deficits are to blame. But these approaches don’t address the root problem. 

A recent report by the California Future of Work Commission details important trends affecting workers’ mental health and well-being and proposes a New Social Compact to improve the quality of employment and economic opportunity through coordinated, multi-stakeholder action. The goal of this compact is that all California workers earn a living wage with dignity in the face of automation and other technological changes. The commission recommends significant policy actions, including a higher minimum wage; improving job quality; addressing workforce inequities involving race, gender and vulnerable populations; and creating a new safety net and benefits to support affected workers and communities. The next step is for legislators — with a push from constituents, if necessary — to respond with adequate funding and policies so that all Californians can benefit from the economic opportunities technological advancements bring. 

The report is a good place to start. If we truly want to avoid a future in which inhumane applications of digital surveillance is the norm, we must stop trying to fix the workers and start fixing the work.

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