Crisis of well-being in the digital economy. Mental health in a digitised world of work

Covid-19 has revealed another type of pandemic that has been years in the making, affecting people’s mental health. An unprecedented health crisis, directly linked to the precariousness of the labour market, job instability and digitalisation of the economy.

We already have data in this regard: according to EUROFOUND, 20% of jobs in Europe were of “poor quality” in 2017 and put the physical or mental health of workers at risk; the OECD, on its part, refers to financial uncertainty and job insecurity as risk factors associated with poor mental health, and points out that investment in quality jobs with lasting contracts are essential to ensure good mental health.

Recent international inflation and rising costs have also reduced the population’ s purchasing power, increasing the need to invest in access to decent employment to prevent the proliferation of psychosocial risks that also give rise to mental health issues.

To further fuel this storm, a very popular key ingredient is added: the massive digitalisation of our entire living environment and, in particular, of the working environment. New technologies, automation and artificial intelligence systems are transforming the nature and organisation of work as we know it, with clear implications for the mental health of workers.

Increased control and mass surveillance through digital mechanisms, lack of clarity and transparency in professional relationships, isolation, hyperconnection, increased working hours or violation of privacy rights. These are some of the factors caused by digitalisation, which increase psychosocial risks in the work context and have a negative impact on mental health. Teleworking, as an example of a digitally born practice, offers greater flexibility in exchange for sacrificing a necessary separation between private and professional life, and a right to disconnection.

To avoid cases of abuse and new waves of workers suffering from widely known disorders such as anxiety, depression or burnout, we must ensure that digital is synonymous with optimisation and progress, not precariousness. To this end, and in order to ensure that workers are duly protected, it is necessary to legislate and fill the existing legal gap.

European impulse: Legislating to close gaps

Friends are coming for dinner. I place an order on my mobile phone. The delivery person arrives on a bicycle. I pick up the order and write a note for services rendered.

This is an example of so-called “platform work”. The worker, probably declared as false self-employed, has no social protection and no right to future social benefits. His or her work is directed by an algorithm, which sets his or her working conditions through a digital platform.

The digital platform economy is a new and growing business model, which exemplifies the need to regulate artificial intelligence systems in the workplace. The employer must take responsibility for having workers performing paid work at their expense, including ensuring decent standards of health and safety in the workplace. As for digital algorithms, they must be used in an ethical and transparent manner, with human supervision to prevent an artificial intelligence system from making arbitrary or discriminatory decisions on such fundamental tasks as hiring, firing or task distribution. The proposal for a European directive to regulate work on digital platforms, currently under negotiation, aims to clarify this grey area of the market.

In any case, digital algorithms or other Artificial Intelligence systems born from digitalisation are present in almost every sector of the labour market today. These are new tools, which can be invasive and risky, if measures and their correct use are not established.

There is no doubt that the vulnerability, control, surveillance and pressure exerted on workers under these circumstances profoundly affect their mental health, and legal mechanisms must be provided to establish specific requirements for prevention and protection. Work-related stress has always been a problem for both workers and employers. According to Eurofound and the European Union Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), 51% of workers in Europe report that stress is common in their workplace, and almost 80% of employers are concerned about work-related stress, showing that psychosocial risks are of concern to both.

Measures have been taken in Europe to address this issue, although not on a mandatory basis. The new strategic framework for health and safety 2021-2027 mentions the problem, but does not establish binding measures to solve it.

There is still a long way to go, but we have already started making a start. For the first time, the European Parliament adopted last July in Strasbourg a text that includes numerous calls to the European Commission to launch new directives to protect the mental health of workers in a digital world of work.

After arduous negotiations, the Socialist Group managed to include important milestones and priorities for the protection of workers. Among them and as a novelty, the call for a directive regulating the use of artificial intelligence specifically for workplaces. Also, calls for the creation of a directive to facilitate the prevention of psychosocial risks in the workplace, legislation to regulate teleworking and guarantee the same working conditions for remote or on-site workers, a directive on the right to disconnect, and a directive for work-related mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or burnout to be recognised as occupational diseases, which would lead to adequate compensation and recognition of those affected, as well as facilitate their reintegration into the labour market and stop stigmatisation.

It is worth mentioning that a large percentage of people who suffer or have suffered from some kind of mental illness of occupational origin have difficulties in re-entering the labour market, which ends up resulting in a high cost for social security systems, an increase in long-term unemployment rates, and an increase in the risk of social exclusion and poverty in the medium to long term.

Mental health in modern times

Mental health has always been approached from the sidelines. However, work-related mental disorders have been on the rise, becoming a new form of global, invisible pandemic, affecting not only the mental health of workers, but society and welfare systems as a whole. Of the estimated cost of over 4% of GDP spent on mental disorders across the EU, 1.6% (240 billion euros) is due to indirect labour market costs such as absenteeism and presenteeism (working while ill). Data show that more than half of all working days lost in the EU are due to work-related stress.

A digital and progressive economy cannot be built on a foundation of labour exploitation, precarious working conditions and unprotected and sick workers. Europe needs to act to move towards a sustainable transition, driven by welfare and social justice.

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