“Artificial intelligence alone does not make you happy”

How can artificial intelligence tools support employees to make them happier and more productive? We spoke to Prof. Dr Verena Nitsch about what companies need to consider when introducing AI tools. She teaches and conducts research at the Institute of Ergonomics at RWTH Aachen University and heads the Ergonomic Competence Center AKzentE4.0.

Professor Nitsch, how do employees benefit from the introduction of artificial intelligence tools?

Artificial intelligence offers new opportunities, both for companies and their employees. However, how they actually benefit depends very much on how work is organised and how work is reorganised with the introduction of AI. New technologies such as AI aren’t inherently better for employees, especially as they can also be used to further condense tasks and increase stress levels. The introduction of AI alone is not enough to make employees happier.

But isn’t it said that AI can take over repetitive tasks and thus relieve employees?

That’s true. Many tasks can be transferred to artificial intelligence and, in theory, there is more freedom for creative activities. However, actually giving people this freedom is a matter of work organisation. Managers must explicitly grant their employees this freedom instead of deciding that employees should use the time they have gained to take on more repetitive tasks.

Is there a risk of this happening?

I think so, because the primary reason a company or organisation introduces AI tools is to make processes more efficient and ultimately reduce costs. However, this can also lead to an increase in workload: People have to complete more tasks in less time because the technology allows them to do so. The fact is that statistics show a continuous increase in illnesses such as burnout and depression among the population.

How can this be counteracted?

People need the right skills to deal with the new situation. To develop these skills, they need room for manoeuvre. This also includes learning to deal well with deadlines and stress. This must be consciously decided and communicated.

Are companies aware of these challenges?

Many companies recognise that AI will change processes and prepare their employees well for these changes. In many SMEs, there is an awareness of focusing on employees because the absence of a few individuals weighs more heavily. However, some decision-makers only listen to providers of the new technology, who promise that investments are worthwhile because they can save time. The impact this has on people is sometimes neglected.

How should companies prepare for the introduction of AI tools?

We are testing this in our Ergonomic Competence Center AKzentE4.0: it is important to create spaces for experimentation and provide companies with support to counteract work intensification and information overload. Decision-making processes are becoming increasingly complex and opaque for employees. This is why we bring technology developers together with companies and advise them on the possible effects on employees and how they could benefit from the technology. Our competence centre currently brings together 16 companies, mainly from the manufacturing industry and skilled crafts, as well as five research institutions and multipliers such as the Chamber of Skilled Crafts and the City of Aachen. We make the results, knowledge and expertise available to the public.

What specific insights have you already gained?

One thing we repeatedly see: Participation is good, we should involve people at an early stage and let them have a say in how their work is organised. This is also economically sensible. Absences can be a result of poor work design, and when specialists and managers are absent, it costs a lot of money. We encourage organisations to make an honest calculation: How much time is lost daily when new technologies are not intuitive to use, established processes no longer work and employee motivation drops? A lot of working time is wasted here. We advocate for introducing AI in such a way that it positively changes jobs for employees and demonstrably provides benefits. This creates free spaces for other activities that are more creative and gives employees the opportunity to develop further.

Professor Nitsch, thank you very much for the interview!

“Artificial Intelligence Alone Does Not Make You Happy"