The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” may spur the next frontier of workplace safety measures
At first glance, the title seems like a “which of these is not like the other?” game, but in actuality, the mental health implications wrought by technological innovations like Instagram could spur the next frontier in workplace safety regulation. When our class discussions and tweets touched on The Wall Street Journal’s recent report unveiling Facebook’s internal knowledge of the toxicity of Instagram, I questioned the relevance to digital transformation from a business standpoint and filed it under social interest – yet days later I could not stop thinking about it. Was there some link I was overlooking that merited exploring?
There is a surplus of studies, scholarly articles and personal anecdotes on the potentially adverse effects of social media and technology on society at large: harm to attention span, critical thinking, social skills, mental health and physical wellbeing (sleep disruption, eye strain, posture) to name a few. I had never really considered the implications from a workplace standpoint; however, if we look back through history, there is an inextricable connection between innovation and societal transformation, and the subsequent evolution of workplace safety regulation.
A (very) brief history on workplace safety
The rapid mechanization of work spurred by the 1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions introduced greater productivity and efficiency, but the adoption of the new tools and machinery that led to those achievements meant most employers and employees were inexperienced in using and unfamiliar with the possible hazards associated with them. Urbanization and advances in communication meant that workplace tragedies and tales of toxic conditions reached more of the masses, fomenting popular support and cries for reform: “outrage over substandard working and living conditions would fuel the formation of labor unions, as well as the passage of new child labor laws and public health regulations in both Britain and the United States”[i]
We are now on the precipice of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution.’ According to famed economist and founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, the Fourth IR “will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before” due to the convergence of connectivity, compute capabilities, speed of breakthroughs and the “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”[ii]
Much like the preceding industrial revolutions before us, we are integrating new tools into our work and lives at breakneck speeds, well before the full effects are known and mitigated. It stands to reason then that many of the ‘personal use’ concerns ascribed to social media and technology will eventually surface in the workplace, and hopefully encourage appropriate measures to tackle the less visible impacts.
The harmful effects of social media platforms extend beyond teenagers & can infiltrate the workplace
As I prepared this blog, I tried to think of how a platform like Instagram would ever even arise in the workplace and it dawned on me that I had experienced an example firsthand. A recent position required following my “clients” (luxury hotels and brands) on Instagram to stay current and tapped in to their new initiatives, announcements, etc., while following competitor brands, adjacent industries and thought leaders to monitor innovative trends and spark inspiration. I was reluctant to re-adopt Instagram, as I had previously felt the addictive and negative consequences of the platform and had taken a refreshing hiatus. I reasoned with myself that this would be different because it was all work-related, and I would limit my content consumption solely to that end. As you may imagine, scrolling through idyllic shots of luxury resorts in far-flung locations, exclusive high-end and highly covetable goods/services and picture-perfect travel influencers all in the name of “work” does not, in fact, create some sort of filter that removes the human emotional impact. I found that the content was stirring self-doubt about my profession and job satisfaction (“why am I not getting paid to travel the world and take a few pictures?”) and checking the app became so ingrained to the point of being a subconscious habit.
While I wouldn’t say my company should be held responsible for exposing me to the ills of social media, it did make me start to wonder about the hidden impact of either using social media tools for work, and/or workplaces adapting internal practices to mirror or replicate popular trends. This can manifest in the gamification of work or through adhering to what Gerd Leonhard, author of Technology versus Human, coins the “rating economy”[iii] – being rewarded or penalized for every interaction (think: Uber, Yelp). Some companies are even incorporating AI surveillance all in the name of understanding employee satisfaction and optimizing processes. However the gamification, constant rating or surveillance incentivizes some, but can create disengagement in others and undercurrents of toxic work environments when not carefully planned and implemented.
Already within the last decade we’ve seen a rapid rise in the proliferation of “workplace wellness” campaigns and/or organizations touting fringe benefits like nap pods, unlimited snacks, on-site meditation rooms and a whole host of other incentives to lure talent and counteract the impact of burnout driven by the demands of perpetual connectivity and more sedentary professions.
While much attention is given to the impact of technology and social media on children and teens, I think the recent WSJ reports and others are just the tip of the iceberg in calling into question the ramifications of constant connectivity and replacing virtual connection for human relationships. Like the preceding industrial revolutions before us, we will hopefully begin to see calls for regulation and employer responsibility to mitigate the damaging effects of an increasingly digitally-intensive workplace and the blurring lines between work and personal lives.
[i] History.com Industrial Revolution: Definitions, Causes & Inventions – HISTORY, “Industrial Revolution”, History.com Editors, 10/29/2009, A&E Television Networks
[ii] “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond” – Klaus Schwab, Founder & Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum, 1/14/2016 The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means and how to respond | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)
[iii] Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution Podcast; Episode 1: “What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” The World Economic Forum; 1/19/2018