Will AI make us even lonelier at work?

Chat bot  service concept. Virtual assistant and CRM software automation technology. Customer using online service with chat bot to get support
Many people are nervous about the rise of artificial intelligence and what it means for the future of work. Photo: Getty

The rapid advance of artificial intelligence and tools like Chat GPT has led to a lot of anxiety. Despite the hype about a robot takeover, though, it’s likely AI will gradually become a part of our jobs as a tool to help ease workloads, rather than replace us. However, research suggests that AI may have other downsides - including an increase in loneliness and sleep problems among workers.

AI is already changing the nature of work and in some cases, it’s taking over the mundane tasks we don’t particularly enjoy doing. But a new study suggests this automation comes at a cost – employees who use AI are more likely to experience loneliness, poor sleep and fall into bad habits, including drinking heavily after work.

The research was led by Pok Man Tang, an assistant professor of management at the University of Georgia who had previously worked in an investment bank where he used AI systems. Tang and his team carried out four experiments in the US, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia – and found the results were consistent across different cultures.

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In one experiment, 166 engineers at a Taiwanese biomedical company who worked with AI systems were surveyed over three weeks about their feelings of loneliness and sense of belonging. Colleagues rated each other on their helpful behaviours, and family members reported on participants’ sleeping habits and after-work alcohol consumption.

Employees who interacted more frequently with AI systems were more likely to experience loneliness, insomnia and increased after-work alcohol consumption. The three other studies – carried out at an Indonesian real estate firm, a Malaysian tech company and a mix of US employees across different sectors – revealed similar results.

Although the research findings are correlational – meaning they don’t directly prove that AI causes loneliness – they do reveal a link between the two. But why might this association exist?

chatbot illustration
Humans are social animals and a working alongside a chatbot is no substitute for working alongside a friendly colleague. Illustration: Getty

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Ultimately, the researchers suggest, it’s because humans are social animals that need to interact with each other. Real-world social connections provide us with a sense of belonging – and a lack of belonging, or loneliness, is linked to feelings of displacement, insecurity and stress. In fact, neuro-imaging research has found that social exclusion is registered by the brain as a physical injury.

“The rapid advancement in AI systems is sparking a new industrial revolution that is reshaping the workplace with many benefits but also some uncharted dangers, including potentially damaging mental and physical impacts for employees,” said Tang. “Isolating work with AI systems may have damaging spillover effects into employees’ personal lives.”

The research is particularly troubling considering the workplace already has an isolation problem. A study by Glassdoor found that six in ten people with less than five years of work experience are lonely all or most of the time. Only half of those surveyed said they connected socially with coworkers once a month, despite 89% saying a sense of belonging is essential for workplace satisfaction.

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Although the study raised the possibility that AI systems may increase isolation, it’s important to note that the results also highlighted some advantages. The researchers found that people who used AI systems were more likely to help other people. This may be because AI enabled people to work faster, giving them more spare time. Or, because lonely workers want to help coworkers in order to connect with them.

Studies have also highlighted several ways AI may help benefit us, although the research is mixed – in part, because the technology is still new and we don’t know much about its psychological impact on humans. For veterans who are reluctant to speak to a person, virtual therapists may help provide much-needed mental health support. And AI can also help detect when someone has had a fall in their home.

Other studies suggest ‘companion robots’ could help reduce chronic loneliness among older people, including those with dementia. However, the researchers emphasise, robots are no replacement for human interaction. They may simply offer a temporary solution until society prioritises social connectedness in elderly care.

According to Tang, AI systems could focus more on tedious and repetitive tasks, leaving people more time for social-based activities like team decision-making. But whether the technology is used to free up time for socialisation or to replace it, Tang urges employers not to think of AI systems as the answer to our workplace problems – their effectiveness depends entirely on how we use them.

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