It is becoming more and more clear that digitalisation is very unhealthy for people. This includes dangers for employees and other workers, for instance caused by workplace surveillance.
The European Parliament recently has discussed mental health in the digital world of work. The Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the Parliament has published an interesting report that still is too optimistic of the possibilities of digitalisation, but that also notes the dangers (markup by me):
13. Recalls that proactive approaches to digitalisation, such as improving digital skills in the workplace or allowing for flexible working hours, can help to mitigate work-related stress; points out that AI has the potential to improve working conditions and quality of life, including a better work-life balance and better accessibility for persons with disabilities, to predict labour market development and to support human resources management in preventing human bias; cautions, however, that AI also gives rise to concerns over privacy and occupational health and safety such as the right to disconnect, and can lead to the disproportionate and illegal surveillance and monitoring of workers, infringing on their dignity and privacy, as well as discriminatory treatment in recruitment processes and other areas due to biased algorithms, including on the grounds of gender, race and ethnicity; is concerned, furthermore, that AI can undermine the freedom and autonomy of people, such as through prediction and flagging tools, real-time monitoring and tracking and automated behavioural nudges, and contribute to workers’ mental health problems such as burnout, technology-related stress, psychological overload and fatigue; stresses that AI solutions in the workplace must be transparent, fair and avoid any negative implications for workers and must be negotiated between employers and workers’ representatives including trade unions; calls on the Commission and the Member States, in this regard, to devise a legislative proposal on AI in the workplace to ensure appropriate protection for workers’ rights and well-being, including their mental health and fundamental rights such as non-discrimination, privacy and human dignity in an increasingly digitalised workplace; notes that online harassment tends to have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable groups including younger, female and LGBTQI+ workers; stresses that only 60 % of Member States have specific legislation in place to address bullying and violence at work, and calls on the Commission and the Member States, therefore, to propose targeted mandatory measures to reverse and tackle this increasing problem at work and protect the victims with all the necessary resources; (…)
15. Stresses the need to protect workers from exploitation by their employers in the use of AI and algorithmic management, including prediction and flagging tools to predict employee behaviour and identify or deter rule-breaking or fraud by workers, real-time monitoring of progress and performance, time-tracking software and automated behavioural nudges; calls for a ban on the surveillance of workers;
On 5 July the European Parliament adopted a resolution, read the press release with amongst others:
Teleworking’s health and privacy risks
MEPs warn about the risks to workers’ mental health and the threats to the right to privacy posed by technology-enabled control and surveillance through software and AI tools, remote real-time monitoring of progress and performance and time-tracking. They also point to other factors causing additional stress, including financial insecurity, fear of unemployment, limited access to healthcare, isolation, as well as changes to working hours and inadequate work organisation because of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis.
Additionally, they highlight the impact the shift to teleworking may have on the mental health of those at risk of digital exclusion. They say that the digital divide in the EU needs to be addressed to ensure that all workers have a sufficient level of digital skills.
Preventive measures and a directive to ensure the right to disconnect
MEPs urge the EU and member states to tackle the issue through an EU Mental Health Strategy, a European Care Strategy and national action plans. They note that the lack of binding common standards and principles regarding psychosocial risks in the EU leads to de facto unequal legal protection for workers. Parliament asks the EU institutions and member states to further regulate digital work to protect mental health, in cooperation with employers and workers’ representatives. The Commission, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and member states should include mental health in their health crisis and pandemic emergency response and preparedness plans.
MEPs call for a directive on minimum standards and conditions to ensure all workers the effective right to disconnect, and to regulate the use of existing and new digital tools for work purposes.
It is positive that the Parliament is aware of the risks of digitalisation for workers.
Still it remains worrying to see that Europe, in all kinds of legislation (e.g. anti-money laundering), shows that it does not understand the risks of digitisation for human dignity. For the time being I fear that we are heading for a digitally guided surveillance society.
- Press release European Parliament: ‘Protecting mental health in the digital workspace‘, 5 July 2022.
- Report by the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of 21 June 2022: html, pdf.
- Agenda European Parliament of Tuesday, 5 July 2022.