‘Always on’ employees exhausted by 24/7 digitalised new world of work

New technology and digitalised surveillance are causing employees to suffer from a form of ‘psycho-social violence’ and causing productivity to go down, claim Dr Phoebe Moore, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Middlesex University London and Pav Akhtar, Director of Professionals and Managers at UNI Global Union, in a paper* published recently in the International Journal of Labour Research.

The study launched by the ILO’s Bureau for Workers ‘Activities (ACTRAV) reveals that employees feel that they can never fully switch off - even while asleep or on holiday. In the new world of work, the overwhelmed employee is ‘always on’, can check their mobile phone up to 150 times a day, suffers from information overload, and is unable to find time to reflect or just to think, say the authors.
Commenting on the paper, Dr Moore says: “The irony is employers want technology to boost productivity but such constant monitoring and pressure to be available by mobile or email ultimately leads to high turnover and undermines the very productivity they want to improve.
She adds: “We are heading towards a place where employee health and safety are secondary to lean logistics and speed of work. A review of the legal position of digital surveillance in the workplace is urgently needed and until that time responsible employers should develop robust policies or code of conduct.”
The authors highlight key areas where they believe new technologies at work are leading to structural violence. They include electronic performance monitoring (EPM) and surveillance, employee post experience performance rating (ie how did we do? please rate us) and wearable tracking technologies. EPM and surveillance are often used for appraisals and hiring and firing decisions say the authors. They add that tracking can be used to investigate physical activity, stress levels and absence scores and have the potential to dehumanise employees and reduce them to a collection of activity timestamps.
Post experience online/text ratings can make or break the reputation of an employee. The authors claim that Uber drivers reported that they could be fired if they received ‘star’ rankings below 5.6 or 4.5.
Wearable tracking devices are often incorporated into workplace wellness initiatives but there is concern about the amount of data that employers can access from this technology. Employee tracking has resulted in reports of heightened stress and physical burnout with one UPS driver saying that the employer uses new metrics as a ‘mental whip’.
Co-author, Pav Akhtar says: “From a trade union perspective there has been a rapid expansion in how much biometric data is being harvested in workplaces. In too many cases the choice of which technology should be installed is motivated by what is the new and most advanced thing to have, rather than adequate consideration being given to what the company or its employees’ needs are. This creates new risks of structural violence, psycho-social stress and, in some cases, inequalities that can have differential impacts based on a person’s gender, ethnicity or other characteristics.
“Employers can secure good outcomes if they are transparent and accountable and if they work with trade unions as an invaluable partner in the process of engaging in social dialogue that leads to agreements that promote responsible, reliable and robust practices. What is very clear is that we need to have good examples of good systems as quickly as possible.”
The authors provide a checklist to challenge the structural violence made possible by technologies. The checklist focuses on openness, consent, consultation, private spaces, and proportionality.
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