Textile Mills…Railroads…Coal Mines…Instagram?

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]

The Four Industrial Revolutions

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.

Workplace Wellness

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

14 comments

  1. You pose a very interesting and unique question here. It seems obvious now that I have read the blog, but I had not considered how social media impacted the work environment. A thought that came to mind was when I started at my new company, they asked me to follow the company on all social media apps. Maybe I’m aging myself, but I was surprised my company would even care about social media…it’s not like they are promoting influencers or anything…they are a medical company. Companies today feel pressured to stay relevant and use social media as an avenue to show off latest success’ and promote themselves as a great place to work. What used to be a personal site has crossed into the business side of our lives.

  2. There was a cool example in this class a couple of years ago about one of the construction companies using drones and AI to monitor OSHA violations. It was pretty cool.

  3. I absolutely agree with you that there’s a hidden impact of using social media for work. The first thing I thought of as I was reading your article was OSHA, which I guessed was founded in the 30’s. It actually was formed in 1971 which is just crazy to me. Its interesting how that date lines up almost perfectly with industry 3.0 in your image above…there must have been a surge of incidents before that to prompt its creation. One of my friends recently told me he set something up on his phone that limits the amount of time he can spend on Instagram each day. For Apple to even provide users with specific app access restriction is pretty concerning as it shows they are well aware of social media addiction as well.

  4. Timely blog with a lot of scrutiny surrounding “Instagram for Kids”. We are for sure in a new era of work. I don’t think that any tiktokers or YouTubers are employed by ByteDance or Google, but I can see a parallel of the negative implications of how new age revenues compared to child labor decades ago. The mental impact social media is having on people is real; I wonder how that will affect how these individuals are recognized, could this be a case of workplace comp? I personally do not think so, but there is a lot of money being generated for these online influencers.

  5. This piece brings me to one conclusion. No matter where we move to work, (in the office, at home, in the factory) we will always face some externalities to our overall well being. Realistically, no matter how many resources we spend on preventing physical or mental health implications, history tells us work is bad for us besides the potential for satisfaction with the job itself or from making lots of money. The pandemic shifted everyone to work from home, and now we’re seeing more deaths mental health related than at any point in history. Prior to this, child labor in factories was the huge topic and that stretches far back before the whole meatpacking industry regulation. I never gave this much consideration, but I thank you for bringing this back into the light for us all to read about.

  6. Thank you for your insightful blog! We can all agree that the last year and half has had us over engaged and connected in ways many of us did not anticipate. This constant connection is keeping people from ‘unplugging’ and taking the time they need away from their work leading to high levels of digital exhaustion. In addition to this, we can only absorb so much change at once and with technology advancing in the work place along with different means to stay connected in our personal lives I would say we are also hitting a level of change fatigue that many companies have not had to deal with in the past.

  7. Totally agree that the mental health consequences of social media are severe and deserve attention. I question what systemic solutions there are though however and personally simply to keep my online presence to a minimum.

  8. Great post! I think you’re right that it’s starting to become worrisome on where the line is drawn for work/life balance in the increasingly digital workplace. Especially now that employees are home more often than the workplace currently, it can be sometimes hard to log off of work since your home is now the office. Hopefully going forward there can be some more regulation in what is allowed for businesses and employees to make sure there are no exploitations of employees in this growing digital world.

  9. Thanks for this blog!! I have honestly forgotten how integrated all of this is for me. Working as a resident director is a strange role in that I live on campus, I serve in an on-call role, and have regular business hours in my office. While social media is not an immediate part of my role, my gmail app average use analytics would argue that I am not successfully drawing lines between work and my personal time. I am curious to see how these next years hold employers accountable for not exploiting their employees outside of their assigned hours even when they are considered salaried employees. Thanks for this insight!

  10. This was very insightful, and made me think of how often I’m using social media for non-personal reasons. Most of us are asked by our companies to post on linkedin to personally recruit new talent, interact with facebook, instagram, or twitter; I imagine some are asked to keep up with the industry via social media, or if you’re a consultant as you were Christina, it’s fairly common to follow your clients on social media. Should companies be considering the mental wellness of their employees before these become expectations?

  11. Cool subject and one that definitely deserves a heavy look at by anyone who uses social media but to steal a line from our lecture tonight, “Zuckerberg isn’t shutting it down anytime soon” I agree with a lot of our classmates who have commented on a whole slew of points from the article. I found the peice about workplace wellness to be very relevent at least at my current company. I couldn’t help but laugh at the twitter meme you posted regarding that subject. I think that’s a very real phenomenon that companies are leveraging wellness programs and other incentives to try and keep employees motivated and prevent burnout. In reality I’d give up my fitness reimbursement and other benefits to add a new member to my team any day of the week. Another employee to help with workload would be better for my mental health than the fitness reimbursement heck it would actually open up for time for me focus on my fitness.

  12. This reminds me of a discussion we had in class last semester on how google and amazon have created campuses where they offer nap pods and gyms in efforts to increase productivity and encourage people to stay at work longer. Be it in person or virtual, I think companies find a way to overwork their employees. If in person, you would find yourself staying late most days to meet deadlines and have to constantly check your email on your days off or on the weekends incase new work came in and whether it needs immediate attention. Similarly with working from home its difficult to draw the line for when the workday starts and ends. You find yourself going back after you’ve logged off for the day! I think as a whole there needs to be better regulations put forth to ensure the employees aren’t overworked (in person or virtual). I do see your point on how it is more of a problem for remote jobs now since its a fairly new space and not well regulated.

  13. This is a very interesting topic. Often times I wonder how far will companies push themselves on the social media space. We all know that social media and real-life are not so blurred, and companies can fire you for a specific post or comment on media such as Twitter and Facebook, but it is right?

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