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Introduction

Digitalisation stands as one of the primary transformations currently unfolding worldwide. Numerous aspects of individual and social life, as well as the world of work, have been impacted by the advent of new technologies and their integration into work processes and across workplaces, and further changes are anticipated in the future. The emergence of this trend necessitates a comprehensive analysis of its consequences across various dimensions, including Occupational Safety and Health (OSH).

Against the backdrop of the digital transition, another discernible trend in the field of OSH in recent decades is the increasing attention to psychosocial risks (PSR), alongside the traditional focus on physical and chemical risks[1]. This heightened sensitivity towards psychosocial risks was prompted by the shift in the European labour market structure from manufacturing to the service sector. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic further emphasized this trend, as its social and psychological consequences brought mental health into the spotlight[2].

The transformations outlined – namely, the digitalisation of work and the growing attention to psychosocial risks and mental health at work – do converge. The call for a comprehensive investigation into OSH implications of digitalisation, coupled with the need to consider the psychosocial dimension of OSH, sets the stage for the study of psychosocial risks and mental health concerns related to the digitalisation of work.

Drawing on the results from EU-OSHA research in the area of digitalisation and OSH, this entry aims to systematically select and describe psychosocial risks and mental health issues linked to the digitalisation of work. The subsequent section provides theoretical background on mental health and psychosocial risks, while the following one delves into the implications of digitalisation on mental health at work, covering both opportunities and risks. Finally, a subsection is dedicated to discussing key aspects to consider in order to ensure a human-centred digital transition.

Psychosocial risks and mental health

Psychosocial risks and hazards, as defined by Cox and Griffiths, encompass “those aspects of work design and the organisation and management of work, and their social and environmental context, which may have the potential to cause psychological or physical harm”[3]. This definition, endorsed by EU-OSHA, categorizes psychosocial risk factors into three dimensions: work organization and design, interpersonal relations and social interactions, and the work environment[1]. Cox and Griffiths offer a more detailed taxonomy of psychosocial risk factors, reported in Table 1, which complements and specifies the aforementioned tripartition rather than replacing it.

It is noteworthy that psychosocial risk factors may lead to both physical and psychological harm. While physical hazards – such as a fall from height – directly impact health, psychosocial hazards are believed to affect a worker's mental and physical health indirectly through a stress-mediated pathway[4]. To clarify, exposure to psychosocial risk factors induces work-related stress, likely resulting in adverse health outcomes. Negative mental health outcomes include anxiety, exhaustion, sleep problems, burnout and dissatisfaction. Such outcomes are mostly triggered by work-related stress associated with psychosocial risk factors, although physical factors such as inappropriate equipment and work environment may also negatively affect mental health. Conversely, physical health outcomes arising from psychosocial risks include musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), fatigue and eye strain. Normally, in such cases psychosocial risks do not act in isolation but combine with, or exacerbate the effects of physical risk factors, such as those related to poor ergonomics[5].

Table 1 – Source: author’s own elaboration based on the taxonomy of psychosocial risks by Cox and Griffiths[3]
Job contentLack of variety or short work cycles, fragmented or meaningless work, under use of skills, high uncertainty
Workload and work intensityWork overload or under load, technology pacing, time pressure, tight deadlines
Job controlLow participation in decision making, lack of control over task allocation, workload and/or pacing
Work scheduleShift working, night shifts, inflexible work schedules, unpredictable hours, long or unsociable hours
Working environment and equipmentInadequate equipment availability, suitability or maintenance, poor environmental conditions (lack of space, poor lighting, excessive noise)
Role in organisationRole ambiguity, role conflict, unclear responsibilities
Organisational culture and functionPoor communication, low level of support for problem solving and personal development, lack of definition of organisational objectives
Interpersonal relationships at workSocial or physical isolation, poor relationships with superiors, interpersonal conflict, lack of social support, bullying, harassment
Career developmentCareer stagnation and uncertainty, under promotion or over promotion, poor pay, job insecurity, low social value to work
Home-work interfaceConflicting demands of work and home, low support at home, dual career problems

Psychosocial factors and digitalisation

Digitalisation has brought about significant transformations in work organization and structures, with further changes anticipated in the future[6]. While positive effects on productivity are expected due to the overall optimisation of work processes and organisation facilitated by digitalisation, these transformations are also predicted to impact OSH, presenting both opportunities and risks.

Opportunities

Opportunities arising from digitalisation can be categorised into three dimensions: job content, job organization, and direct worker's health.

Job Content: Automation of tasks, particularly the reduction of repetitive tasks, allows workers to focus on creative and human-centred tasks, utilising cognitive and social skills[7],[8]. This shift not only enhances the overall work experience but also reduces the ergonomic and physical risks associated with repetitive tasks performed in front of a screen (e.g. eye strain) as  well as those associated to manual handling tasks (e.g. awkward postures and forceful movements), which can altogether cause MSDs[5]. It equally enables the removal of workers from hazardous situations – such as maintenance of gas oil infrastructures[9] – improving safety. Finally, time flexibility is expected to improve due to the automation of tasks, especially in sectors where workers are usually tied to natural cycles, such as agriculture[10].

Job Organization: Digitalisation provides opportunities for higher flexibility and worker autonomy across various areas. For example, remote and hybrid work arrangements enabled by digital technologies can contribute to a better work-life balance, saving time from commuting to the employer’s premises[8]. Also, algorithmic management can support the rationalisation of workflows, balancing individual workloads and optimizing performance at both individual and company level[11],[12].

Direct Health Support and Monitoring: Digitalisation may offer opportunities for direct health support and monitoring. Digital counselling is expected to support workers' well-being, while future developments of smart digital systems may help monitoring parameters related to stress and mental health, preventing negative health outcomes[12],[13].

Risks

The taxonomy of risk factors mentioned above provides a good framework for understanding the risks associated with digitalisation. Notably, psychosocial risk factors across different digitalisation areas tend to distribute horizontally across identified categories. The following subsection describe risk factors grasped around the categories from the taxonomy.

Job content and career development: Skills concerns lie at the core of the digitalisation debate. Automation of physical and cognitive tasks is expected to cause deskilling, leading to the loss of skills necessary for tasks[14]. Deskilling is not confined to physical robots but extends to other digitalisation areas, such as the use of worker management systems based on algorithms or AI (AIWM) [12] and operational instructions from smart digital devices[11]. Job polarisation is an indirect consequence of automation – operating at the level of labour market – which comes together with deskilling and loss of job variety: the automation of middle-skilled tasks forces workers into either lower-skilled or higher-skilled occupations, with many workers ending up with lower-skilled jobs. To deal with deskilling and avoid the negative effects of job polarisation, workers must obtain skills that allow them to meet new demands in the digital labour market[14]. However, even reskilling raises concerns: on the one hand, it is not certain that reskilled workers actually succeed in avoiding polarisation effect; on the other hand, even in case they do, the need to obtain new skills and be competitive might put pressure on them and cause stress. It has to be noticed, additionally, that certain types of platform work only require low skills and do not include training programmes through which to acquire new skills that may be helpful for future career development[15]. Concerns regarding skills are linked to a broader increase in job insecurity and precariousness. The automation of tasks and the resulting deskilling can instigate fears of job loss, whereas the lack of opportunities to acquire new skills may lead workers to perceive themselves as becoming obsolete. When coupled with short-term work arrangements facilitated by digital platforms, this can heighten concerns about job security and a sense of temporary career paths. These factors collectively contribute to negatively impact workers' mental health. Dissatisfaction, fear of job loss, limited career perspectives and a sense of transient work are associated with deskilling. Additionally, the shift towards low-skilled occupations may evoke fears of losing job or social status. The pressure to acquire new skills further compounds these risk factors, potentially resulting in adverse mental health outcomes such as burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Work intensity and job control: The integration of digital technologies in workplaces is aimed at enhancing productivity and streamlining work processes. However, this advancement comes with a potential trade-off between leveraging technology for productivity and addressing OSH concerns. This is because increased reliance on technology may diminish workers' control over their jobs and lead to a work intensification. In essence, the technology dictates the path, rate, and schedule of work, leaving human workers with limited room for initiative[12],[14]. Concerns regarding workload and job control are pervasive across various digitalization areas. Firstly, the use of robots for task automation may result in technological coupling, characterized by a low level of control and dependence on the robotic system, potentially leading to heightened stress levels[7]. Furthermore, the decline of human role to oversee machine activity may contribute to overwork, especially if notifications from the machine are received outside regular office hours[11]. Secondly, the use of AIWM is implicated in work intensification, involving reduced breaks, accelerated work pace, and the simultaneous execution of multiple tasks[12]. Besides being a source of stress in itself, the pressure to perform tasks at the rapid pace dictated by technology may prompt workers to adopt unsafe behaviours in an effort to enhance performance. Similar concerns arise in the realm of digital platform work, where work intensification due to automatic task allocation is exacerbated by rating systems. According to these systems, tasks are assigned based on workers' performance and customer satisfaction rates, reducing their control over the workload. Consequently, workers may be compelled to accept and execute tasks for which they are not qualified, as well as tasks that may expose them to violence and harassment by clients (e.g. on-location tasks such as delivery or cleaning services to be provided in unsafe neighbourhoods), to maintain high performance ratings[15],[16]. Moreover, the emphasis on satisfaction rates can make worker-customer interactions more stressful, as workers are pressured to project kindness and positivity, possibly concealing their true emotions[15]. Digital surveillance, another facet of AIWM and the use of smart digital devices, is believed to contribute to work intensification. Extensive data collection by digital systems allows for performance and work pace monitoring, as well as task tracking[12]. The perception or reality of being under surveillance may lead to work intensification, irrational behaviours, and self-censorship. It can also foster an "always-on" culture, creating an environment characterized by low trust and competitiveness. Negative surveillance effects may arise even when monitoring is intended to enhance workers' safety through the use of smart digital devices[13]. Work intensification, loss of job control, and digital surveillance, collectively resulting in an overall loss of autonomy, contribute to elevated stress levels[14]. Consequently, these factors qualify as psychosocial risks that may lead to adverse psychological and physical outcomes. Mental health consequences include anxiety, sickness and absenteeism, decreased performance, exhaustion, depression, burnout and a heavy mental workload. On the physical side, sedentarism and prolonged screen exposure linked to work intensification – for example in cases of remote programming through digital platforms[17] – may trigger negative health outcomes such as MSDs and cardiovascular diseases[5].

Working environment and equipment: The relationship between workers and workplaces has been significantly impacted by digitalisation. Specifically, the development of remote and hybrid work arrangements, along with the emergence of digital platforms, has severed the traditional link between work and the physical workplace, allowing tasks to be carried out from various locations[8]. While occasional telework existed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, mobility restrictions and pandemic-induced limited social interactions accelerated the widespread adoption of such arrangements, proving their resilience and persisting even after the pandemic. Despite the benefits, such as enhanced flexibility and time management, there are associated risk factors, particularly in terms of ergonomic and environmental issues for those working outside traditional office settings. On one hand, platform and remote work often involve working in unconventional workplaces like homes, bars, and libraries, lacking ergonomic standards and proper work equipment (e.g., working from a kitchen desk without an ergonomic chair, suitable screen, or keyboard, with inadequate lighting). This may lead to ergonomic issues and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). In digital platform work, ergonomic concerns also extend beyond online tasks, encompassing on-location activities like parcel delivery, where workers are required to provide their own equipment, often falling short of ergonomic standards[15]. On the other hand, the increase in remote and hybrid arrangements, accompanied by a decrease in on-site workers, has led to a structural transformation of physical workspaces toward smaller, more flexible, and shared environments. This shift may compromise the quality of on-site work, as shared spaces make it challenging to identify a specific workstation, hinder group activities due to limited space and noise, and occasionally force individuals to resort to teleworking. It is noteworthy that, while hybrid work mitigates some negative effects of full telework, it introduces its own set of OSH concerns[8].

Home-work interface: Beyond the ergonomic and environmental risks discussed above, the blurred distinction between work and physical venues, coupled with the ability to work from home and the possibility be permanently connected via mobile phone or devices, raises concerns about work-life balance. The boundaries between private and professional life are expected to blur as workplace breaks into domestic walls. The lack of a sharp separation between working time and private life – which in traditional work arrangements consists in commuting from home to office – makes it more likely to work longer hours and be overconnected. Simultaneous demands from personal life, such as childcare responsibilities, and work tasks due to the overlap of work and personal life can lead to conflicts within families. Another adverse outcome associated with difficulty with disconnecting is digital addiction. All these factors may result in mental health issues like anxiety, sleep problems, depression, exhaustion, and burnout[18].

Role in organization: The adoption of digital technologies is reshaping organisational structures and relationships across workplaces. This is particularly evident in digital technologies that directly influence how work is organized, such as in the context of digital platforms and AIWM. One consequence is that workers often interact predominantly with digital systems – whether it be the platform, smart digital devices, or task-allocation software – rather than with human colleagues or managers. These transformations may be detrimental to workers, isolating them from the work structure and diminishing negotiation power with employers, as well as hindering cooperation and collective action among workers[18]In the context of platform work, the traditional worker-employer relationship is altered by the classification of the workers as self-employed. Moreover, workers lose the ability to negotiate tasks and communicate with a human representative of the management, shifting the power balance in favour of the platform. Similar concerns arise with AIWM, where work monitoring, gamification, and automatic task allocation contribute to a competitive environment that undermines workers' collective organisation and negotiating power. This power asymmetry may lead to negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. Workers' involvement and consultation are crucial for the smooth and effective introduction of new technologies into work activities. The more impact a technology has on work routines, the more awareness workers need about its functioning and purpose. Transparency about how technologies work and their role in workflows is essential for worker acceptance and to build a trustworthy human-technology relationship. Importantly, a lack of transparency is reported across different digitalization areas, often related to how algorithms operate[15],[12],[13]which worker’s data are collected and for what purposes, and how data is subsequently used. Workers and managers may not be fully aware of algorithms and digital systems’ functioning. This lack of awareness may negatively affect workers' trust in technologies, leading to misuse, disuse, and even sabotage[7]. On the other end of the spectrum, low awareness combined with a distorted human-technology relationship may cause stress and negatively affect mental health, while excessive trust could expose workers to physical hazards.

Interpersonal relationships: Transformations in interpersonal relationships and communication are widely reported across all digitalization areas[12],[15],[14],[13]. The extensive use of digital communication channels, such as online meetings, video calls, chats, and emails, has diminished the role of in-person meetings and direct interpersonal relationships, with most work-related interactions being mediated by technological devices. Team structures and activities shift toward more pragmatic arrangements, where informal talk is replaced by instrumental and effective communication. Remote work arrangements epitomise these transformations, where work-related communication is entirely digital, affecting all digitalisation areas horizontally. The most immediate consequence of these changes is a sense of isolation: lack of support from colleagues results from reduced social and human interaction, along with a lack of support from management and recognition of work performed. Despite being connected for extended periods through digital channels, overall isolation leads to feelings of loneliness, meaninglessness, and low identification with the work carried out. In some cases, not only does friendly and informal exchange disappear, but it can also be replaced by a competitive environment fostered by AIWM, gamification, and automatic task allocation[12]. Moreover, exposure to digital incivilities such as cyberbullying, harassment, and third-party violence may increase[8]. Abuses may be perpetuated by colleagues, and similar issues could arise in relationships with irate customers, as seen in on-location platform work (e.g., handiwork). Negative mental health outcomes associated with a sense of isolation include anxiety, impaired reasoning ability, loss of professional identity, depression, dissatisfaction, and burnout.

Key points for a human-centred digital transition

The previous section sheds light on the ambivalence of the impact of the digital transformation of work. Concerning OSH implications, the utilisation of digital technologies can simultaneously present opportunities to streamline work organisation and enhance working conditions, while also triggering risks detrimental to workers' physical and mental health. For instance, remote work arrangements and digital platform work are anticipated to enhance flexibility in terms of work organization and work-life balance, allowing workers to perform tasks where and when it aligns with their needs. However, gamification and the broader use of algorithms for task allocation, work monitoring, and performance evaluation may result in an "always-on" culture, increased workload, and blurred boundaries between professional and private life. Consequently, the impact of digital technologies on working conditions and OSH appears to be contingent on how they are implemented into work processes and workplaces. The subsequent paragraphs discuss key considerations to ensure that the digital transformation of work contributes positively and fosters healthier workplaces. 

Firstly, the utilization of digital technologies is linked to the extensive collection of workers' personal data. AIWM relies on the collection and analysis of workers' data to streamline work processes. While AIWM can enhance both productivity and working conditions when used to balance task allocation and to streamline processes, the use of sensitive personal data for decision-making (e.g., hiring and firing) may lead to discrimination and a reduction in workplace diversity. Workers' data can also be leveraged for digital surveillance and to establish performance rating systems for task allocation, potentially reducing workers to mere data sources for algorithms rather than autonomous subjects. This gives rise to concerns about data privacy, ownership, and security. Despite existing EU legislation providing a certain level of data protection, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), further efforts are needed, especially in terms of algorithmic transparency.

Another crucial dimension is the establishment of a trustful and transparent relationship between workers and digital technologies to prevent stress related to deskilling, fear of job loss, unclear roles and responsibilities, and loss of job control. Ensuring a trustful relationship involves guaranteeing the transparency of algorithms and digital systems and technologies at large – clarifying how they function and what kind of data they collect. Additionally, involving workers when introducing new technologies is essential. This includes explaining how technologies operate, clarifying roles and responsibilities in their use, and providing the necessary skills for proper utilization. Finally, the introduction of new technologies should always meet the purpose of supporting human work, rather than replacing it, in line with the principle of human-in-command. Technologies must adapt to workers, not the other way around, and leave them margin for autonomy.

In summary, a human-centred approach must characterize a positive digital transition of work. At all stages of digitalisation, from the development of new technologies to their implementation in workplaces, workers should be seen as the ultimate goal of transformation. Consequently, digital technologies need to adapt to workers' needs, emphasizing a human-centred approach as the fundamental condition for ensuring that the digital transition results in improved working conditions and healthier workplaces.

References

[1] Guyot, S. (2012). Psychosocial issues. OSHwiki. Retrieved from https://oshwiki.osha.europa.eu/en/themes/psychosocial-issues#Where_can_I_find_more_information

[2] European Commission. (2023). Communication on a comprehensive approach to mental health. Retrieved from  

[3] Cox, T., & Griffiths, A. (2005). The nature and measurement of work-related stress: theory and practice. In J. R. Wilson, & N. Corlett (Eds.), Evaluation of Human Work (3 ed.). London: CRS Press. 

[4] Hupke, M. (2012). Psychosocial risks and workers health. OSH Wiki. Retrieved from https://oshwiki.osha.europa.eu/en/themes/psychosocial-risks-and-workers-health 

[5] EU-OSHA. (2021b). Musculoskeletal disorders: association with psychosocial risk factors at work. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/sites/default/files/2021-11/MSDs_association_pshychosocial_risks_factors_at_work_executive_summary.pdf 

[6] EU-OSHA. (2018). Foresight of new and emerging occupational health and safety risks associated with digitalisation by 2025. Luxembourg: Publications office of the European Union. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/foresight-new-and-emerging-occupational-safety-and-health-risks-associated 

[7] EU-OSHA. (2022a). Advanced robotics and automation: implications for occupational safety and health. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/advanced-robotics-and-automation-implications-occupational-safety-and-health 

[8] EU-OSHA. (2023c). Hybrid work: new opportunities and challenges for occupational safety and health. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/hybrid-work-new-opportunities-and-challenges-occupational-safety-and-health 

[9] EU-OSHA. (2023b). Advanced robotic systems for inspection and maintenance of gas and oil infastructure. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/advanced-robotic-systems-inspection-and-maintenance-gas-and-oil-infrastructure-id10 

[10] EU-OSHA. (2023a). A robot automating manure cleaning to maintain hygiene in livestock. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/robot-automating-manure-cleaning-maintain-hygiene-livestock-id11 

[11] EU-OSHA. (2019). OSH and the future of work: benefits and risks of Artificial Intelligence tools in workplaces. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/osh-and-future-work-benefits-and-risks-artificial-intelligence-tools-workplaces 

[12] EU-OSHA. (2022b). Artificial intelligence for worker management: implications for occupational safety and health. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/artificial-intelligence-worker-management-implications-occupational-safety-and-health 

[13] EU-OSHA. (2023d). Smart digital monitoring systems for occupational safety and health: uses and challenges. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/smart-digital-monitoring-systems-occupational-safety-and-health-uses-and-challenges 

[14] EU-OSHA. (2022c). Cognitive automation: implications for occupational safety and health. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/cognitive-automation-implications-occupational-safety-and-health 

[15] EU-OSHA. (2021a). Digital platform work and occupational safety and health: a review. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/digital-platform-work-and-occupational-safety-and-health-review 

[16] Fairwork. (2023). Gender and platform work: beyond techno-solutionism. Retrieved from https://fair.work/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2023/07/Fairwork-Gender-Report-2023-FINAL-red.pdf 

[17] EU-OSHA. (2022d). Occupational safety and health risks of remote programming work organised through digital labour platforms. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/occupational-safety-and-health-risks-remote-programming-work-organised-through-digital-labour-platforms 

[18] EU-OSHA. (2021c). The future of working in a virtual environment and occupational safety and health. Retrieved from https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/future-working-virtual-environment-and-occupational-safety-and-health

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Emmanuelle Brun
EU-OSHA
Maurizio Curtarelli
EU-OSHA