Burnout Credit: gesundheitswissen.de
Companies are under increasing pressure from regulators and activists to ensure that their AI products are developed in such a way that potential harms are kept at a minimum. However, teams who work on responsible AI are often left to fend for themselves for achieving this goal. As a result, individuals feel undervalued and endangered in their mental health which possibly leads to burnout. “AI has a lot of potential – but this potential can go either way,” argues Simon Johnson, professor of global economics and management at MIT Sloan School of Management. Burnout is becoming increasingly common as the pressure for continued effectiveness and viability is coupled with feelings of being disconnected from the strategic objectives of the C-suite while being pressured to adhere to ever-shifting regulations.
AI as the Driver of Economic Growth
According to Goldman Sachs Research, breakthroughs in generative AI have the potential to bring about sweeping changes to the global economy. As new tools for natural language processing begin to impact businesses and society, they could drive a 7% (or almost USD 7 trillion) increase in global GDP and lift productivity growth by 1.5 percentage points over a 10-year period per year. “Despite significant uncertainty around the potential for generative AI, its ability to generate content that is indistinguishable from human-created output and to break down communication barriers between humans and machines represents a major advancement with potentially large macroeconomic effects,” Goldman Sachs economists Joseph Briggs and Devesh Kodnani write in a just published report Generative AI Could Raise Global GDP by 7% (goldmansachs.com) . Analysing databases that describe the tasks of over 900 occupations, the economists estimate that roughly two-thirds of U.S. occupations are exposed to some degree of automation by AI. But not all that automated work will translate into layoffs, the report says. “Although the impact of AI on the labour market is likely to be significant, most jobs and industries are only partially exposed to automation and are thus more likely to be complemented rather than substituted by AI,” the authors write. In addition, jobs displaced by automation have historically been offset by the creation of new jobs, while the emergence of new occupations following technological innovations accounts for most of the long-term employment growth. For example, innovations in information-technology generated new occupations such as web page designers, software developers and digital marketing professionals. There were also follow-on effects as the boost to aggregate income drove demand for workers in the service sector in industries such as healthcare, education and food services. As part of the study economist David Autor states that 60% of today’s workers are employed in occupations that did not exist in 1940. This implies that more than 85% of employment growth over the last 80 years was caused by the technology-driven creation of new positions. With well-known tech giants ready to roll out their own generative AI tools, the enterprise software industry appears to be embarking on the next big wave of innovation. Generative AI can streamline business workflows, automate routine tasks and give rise to a new generation of business applications,” Kash Rangan, senior U.S. software analyst in Goldman Sachs Research, writes in the team’s report. The technology is making inroads in business applications, improving the day-to-day efficiency of knowledge workers, helping scientists develop drugs faster and accelerating the development of software code among other things. While much is unknown about how generative AI will influence the world economy and society, there are clear indications that the effects will be significant.
What is Burnout and how does it differ from Depression
According to Wikipedia the term ‘burnout’ was first introduced in 1974 by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He described the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in ‘helping’ professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being ‘burned-out’, exhausted, listless and unable to cope. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees. There are three symptoms that are signs of burnout:
- Exhaustion: People affected feel drained and emotionally exhausted, unable to cope, tired and claiming a severe loss of energy. Physical symptoms include things like pain and gastrointestinal problems.
- Alienation from work-related activities: People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may start being cynical about their working conditions and their colleagues. At the same time, they may increasingly distance themselves emotionally and start feeling numb about their work.
- Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for family members. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate and lack creativity to solve their problem.
Certain symptoms that are typical for burnout also occur in depression. These include extreme exhaustion, feeling down or not being motivated. Because the symptoms of burnout and depression are quite similar, some people may be diagnosed with burnout although they really have depression which is typically treated with medication. In contrast, burnout is usually treated with psychological means such as individual consulting, dream-analysis or group therapy. People with burnout usually do not have depression at the same time, but burnout may increase the risk of getting depression.
The Potential of Burnout caused by AI
Since ChatGPT was launched in November 2022, research shows that generative AI leads to productivity spikes and increased job satisfaction. However, burnout has also become a widespread symptom of individuals involved in the design of AI systems. As workers use these AI tools to increase productivity, it is not clear whether lightened workloads and less drudgery will enable them to take a breath, or simply create more pressure by adding new tasks for reaching corporate goals. According to Yehuda Baruch, professor at the University of Southampton Business School, these AI tools are not a silver bullet for solving burnout. Why AI won’t be the burnout cure we’ve been waiting for – BBC Worklife. He predicts that AI will remove the need for many of the jobs that humans currently handle and that those individuals left working will mostly be assigned to creative and innovative tasks. However, Baruch also points to other experts predicting that burnout is not just caused by overwork or repetitive tasks. Results from a 2021 study by Baruch and academics in China and Hong Kong showed that service workers were more likely to develop burnout when they realised that AI might potentially eliminate their jobs. “Burnout can come in many different forms,” says Baruch. “When you realize that all the knowledge you have gained and skills you have developed over many years can be performed by a machine, you are likely to experience severe frustration.” This may lead to burnout which is not caused by having too much to do. Based on this study, the experts conclude that employers will have a significant role in how AI will influence workers’ mental health. Employers may increase the workload and cut staff or enable workers to reclaim their time for other interesting activities instead. And that uncertainty – regardless of how much tedious work employees can expect to offload – can contribute to burnout in and of itself. As Baruch says: “AI could be a blessing, but it could also be a curse.” Workers in their early twenties, for example, know that companies they work for might reduce jobs to survive the ongoing economic uncertainty. Their reaction typically is to continuously work overtime which induces stress and eventually may lead to burnout as well.
One factor that increasingly contributes to burnout is ‘digital-overload’, spending long, uninterrupted hours glued to computer screens. Some companies are tackling the problem by introducing tools that provide alerts, nudges and data-driven insights to help workers avoid technology fatigue. “These software tools can help to assess the causes of burnout and educate employees about practices that contribute to it,” says John Kostoulas, specializing in HR technologies with research and advisory firm Gartner. “The ability to identify and document trends like abnormal workload patterns or workload’s impacts on absenteeism or a growing pattern of errors can help employees not to fall into the ‘burnout-trap’ and to use AI as a productivity tool and individual source for long-term job satisfaction.