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What are employees’ concerns about AI in the workplace? How can companies foster a healthy relationship between employees and AI to enhance productivity?
Nearly 40% of US workers fear that AI will make their job responsibilities obsolete—and psychologists say it’s wreaking havoc on their mental health. Employees who fear that AI will take over their jobs are more likely to feel undervalued at work, experience symptoms of workplace burnout, and look for other jobs.
Here’s a look at the top AI fears, and what companies can do to assuage them.
Many Fear AI Will Take Their Jobs
Nearly two out of five US workers fear that Artificial Intelligence (AI) may render some or all of their job duties obsolete, according to the American Psychological Association (APA)—and the existential threat is taking a toll. These employees experience significantly higher rates of poor mental health, feel less valued, and intend to quit their jobs at nearly double the rate of workers without AI fears.
Although AI evokes excitement for some, for many, uncertainty prevails about how the rapidly expanding technology will transform their work lives. AI is already embedded in everyday business functions across a variety of sectors, and experts say more companies will implement AI in the coming years.
Psychologists say that many workers fear AI will assume roles traditionally reserved for humans, like content generation and customer interactions, and will devalue their creativity and interpersonal skills. The perceived lack of control over such seismic changes can trigger feelings of helplessness and threaten people’s identities, as skills that took years to develop are potentially rendered obsolete overnight, raising questions about what roles will be left for humans.
How Could AI Replace Laborers?
Historically, robots could only do things they were specifically programmed to do by humans. Because designing and programming a robot for any given task requires a significant up-front investment, automation was only practical for well-defined repetitive tasks, such as assembly line work.
But large-language-model (LLM) AIs like ChatGPT provide two capabilities that, when used together, change the situation: They can interpret natural language, and they can write computer code. This means it is now possible to build a robot that can respond to commands it wasn’t pre-programmed for. AI interprets the command and writes computer code to move the robot accordingly. Then it runs the code and the robot executes the command. General-purpose robots like this could, at least in theory, be substituted for human workers in sectors like retail, food service, manual labor, construction, and other skilled trades.
Moreover, if someone creates a humanoid robot with physical capabilities that lag behind human workers by only as much as LLMs lag behind human authors, the robot might be in a better position to take over the manual labor market than LLMs are to displace human authors. This is because vocations like writing tend to disproportionately favor exceptional quality (a few exceptional authors become rich and famous; most writers don’t), but the market for physical labor doesn’t: An exceptionally talented warehouse worker doesn’t earn much more than an average warehouse worker (at least not until she gets promoted up the management chain, at which point she is no longer doing manual labor).
Furthermore, if the current shortage of labor in the skilled trades continues long enough, robots might provide a solution to the shortage.
A Worried Workforce
As the implementation of AI picks up steam in US workplaces large and small, many workers worry about the pace and impacts of the change:
- In a 2022 PwC survey of 52,000 workers, 30% of respondents feared that AI would replace them in just three years.
- A 2023 APA survey of 2,515 US workers revealed that 38% worried AI could render some or all of their job responsibilities obsolete in the future.
The APA study found that certain populations are more anxious about AI taking their jobs:
- Workers with a high school education or less were more worried than those with a four-year college degree (44% vs. 34%).
- Black (50%), Hispanic (46%), and Asian (44%) workers were more concerned than white respondents (34%).
Creatives are also deeply concerned about the impacts of AI, afraid that it will:
- Reduce artists’ incomes and job prospects by being trained on, plagiarizing, and profiting off of artists’ creations to generate ostensibly original work.
- Jeopardize the future of art by devaluing artists’ skills and unique voices.
Psychologists say that employers should be concerned about workers’ AI-related anxiety. Of APA survey respondents who were worried about AI:
- Two out of five (41%) believed their employer didn’t care about them (vs. 23% without AI anxiety).
- 66% believed their employer overestimated workplace well-being (vs. 48% without AI anxiety).
Workers who don’t feel valued can experience burnout symptoms. Further, uncertainty about if or when AI will take over jobs can lead to a persistent state of vigilance and anxiety that drives workers to seek other jobs.
How Employers Can Manage Workers’ Anxiety
Experts say that employers who adopt AI in their operations can mitigate burnout and improve organizational performance by addressing workers’ fear of the unknown:
- Be transparent and communicate your intentions with AI and your reasons for changing how work is done.
- Lay out a road map for the future and ensure that employees understand their role during the transition.
- Provide skills training to empower workers to effectively collaborate with AI.
- Give workers a voice in determining which of their processes to automate so they can focus on fulfilling tasks and can eliminate burdensome ones.
How Workers Can Manage Their AI Anxiety
Experts say it’s natural for uncertainty around AI to provoke anxiety, but too much of it can compromise functioning. To address AI-related work worries, employees should:
- Stay grounded in reality. Researchers say that both workers who have lost jobs to AI and those who haven’t overstate the pace and volume of the technology taking over.
- Educate yourself about AI. The more you know about technology the better positioned you’ll be to leverage it professionally and progress alongside emerging developments.
- Build solidarity. Share experiences and resources with colleagues to gain perspective, feel less isolated, and combat overwhelm.
- Remember that humans have always adapted to industry disruptions. Technological change, while unsettling, has always been central to society’s advancement. And, many of the most dire predictions about past technological advancements didn’t materialize.
Step away from technology. To avoid getting consumed by the AI doom void, connect with loved ones, nature, and creative pursuits.
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