The covid-19 has shown another type of pandemic that had been brewing for years and that affects people’s mental health. An unprecedented health crisis, directly linked to the precariousness of the labor market, job instability and the digitization 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; For its part, the OECD refers to financial uncertainty and job insecurity as risk factors associated with poor mental health, and points out that investment in quality jobs with long-term contracts are essential to guarantee good mental health.
The recent inflation on an international scale and the growing increase in costs have also led to a reduction in the purchasing power of the population, which increases the need to invest in access to decent employment, to prevent the proliferation of psychosocial risks that also give rise to to mental illness.
To further fuel this storm, a very popular key ingredient is added: the massive digitization of our entire living environment and, specifically, the work environment. New technologies, automation and artificial intelligence systems are transforming the nature and organization of work known to date, with clear repercussions on the mental health of workers.
Increased control and mass surveillance through digital mechanisms, lack of clarity and transparency in professional relationships, isolation, hyperconnection, increase in hours worked or violation of privacy rights. These are some factors resulting from digitization, which increase psychosocial risks in the work context, and have a negative impact on mental health. Teleworking, as an example of a practice born of the digital, offers greater flexibility in exchange for sacrificing a necessary separation between private and professional life, and a right to disconnect.
To avoid cases of abuse and new waves of sick workers due to disorders as widely known as anxiety, depression, or “burnout”, we must ensure that digital is synonymous with optimization and progress, not with precariousness. For this and in order to ensure proper protection of the worker, it is necessary to legislate and cover the existing legal vacuum.
European impulse: Legislate to close gaps
Friends come over for dinner. I place an order through my mobile phone. The delivery man arrives by bicycle. I pick up the order and put a note for the services provided.
This is an example of work called “platform work”. The worker, probably declared falsely self-employed, has no protection or right to future social benefits. His work is directed by an algorithm, which establishes his working conditions through a digital platform.
The digital platform economy is an expanding new business model, exemplifying the need to regulate AI systems in the workplace. The employer must take responsibility for having workers perform paid work for them, which includes ensuring decent standards of health and safety in the workplace. As for the digital algorithm, these must be used in an ethical and transparent manner, in addition to having human supervision to prevent an artificial intelligence system from making arbitrary or discriminatory decisions in tasks as fundamental as hiring, firing or distribution of chores. The proposal for a European directive to regulate work on digital platforms, currently in the negotiation phase, aims to clarify this gray area of the market.
In any case, digital algorithms or other Artificial Intelligence systems born from digitization are present in practically any sector of the workplace today. These are new tools, which can be invasive and risky, if measures and correct use of them are not established.
There is no doubt that the helplessness, control, surveillance and pressure exerted on the worker under these circumstances deeply affects their mental health, so legal mechanisms must be provided that establish basic prevention and protection requirements. Work stress has always been a problem for both workers and employers. According to Eurofound and the Agency union information European for the security and health in worked (EU-OSHA), 51% of workers in Europe report that stress is common in their workplace, and nearly 80% of employers are concerned about work-related stress; which shows that psychosocial risks are of concern to both.
From Europe, measures have been adopted in this regard, although not mandatory. The new strategic framework for health and safety 2021-2027 mentions the problem, but does not establish binding measures to solve it.
There is a long way to go, but we have already started pedaling. For the first time, the European Parliament adopted last July in Strasbourg, a text that includes numerous calls to the European Commission, for the launch of new directives that protect the mental health of workers in a digital world of work.
After arduous negotiations, the socialist group managed to include milestones and important priorities for the defense of workers. Among them and as a novelty, the call for a directive that regulates the use of specific artificial intelligence for workplaces. Also, requests for the creation of a directive that facilitates the prevention of psychosocial risks in the workplace, legislation that regulates teleworking and guarantees the same working conditions for remote or on-site workers, a directive on the right to disconnection, and a directive so that mental disorders caused by work-related reasons such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress or burnout, are recognized as occupational diseases, which would lead to adequate compensation and recognition of the people affected, in addition to facilitate their reintegration into the labor market and curb stigmatization.
It is worth mentioning that a large percentage of people who suffer or have suffered from some type of mental illness of occupational origin have difficulty re-entering the labor market, which ends up translating into a high cost for social security systems, a increase in long-term unemployment rates, and increase in the risk of social exclusion and poverty in the medium-long term.
Mental health in modern times
Mental health has always been approached from the background. However, work-related mental disorders have been on the rise, becoming a new form of global, invisible pandemic that affects not only the mental health of workers, but also society and welfare systems as a whole. Of the estimated cost of more than 4% of GDP spent on mental disorders across the EU, 1.6% (€240 billion) is due to indirect labor market costs, such as absenteeism and presenteeism (working while sick) . Data shows 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 foundations of labor exploitation, precarious working conditions and unprotected and sick workers. Europe needs action to move towards a sustainable transition, governed by welfare and social justice.