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Mental Health Awareness Week: easing concerns about AI

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 16 May 2023

Anxiety around the impact AI might have on job security is at an all time high as generative AIs such as Chat GPT are being rapidly adopted. Is that worry rational and how should it be managed?

When a PwC Global workforce survey canvassed the opinions of 52,000 workers across 44 locations worldwide last year, it found around a third (30%) were concerned about their role being replaced by technology in the next three years. 

With the rapid rise of generative AIs such as ChatGPT, anxiety around the role that the technology will place in the workplace is reaching new heights. The speed at which generative AI technology has improved and been adopted has raised fears that were already bubbling under the surface. In March, as Chat GPT was starting to take off, Goldman Sachs published a report predicting that it could “expose the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs to automation”.

There’s also concern about being unable to keep up with technological pace. In the PwC report, 39% said they were concerned about not getting sufficient training in digital and technology skills from their employer. That proportion was higher among younger respondents.

“With the pace of change when it comes to technology and its integration into our lives, it sometimes seems like its effects are inescapable,” says Chris Smyth, Lecturer in Psychology at Coventry University. “Many businesses had to adapt rapidly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and many of the technological advances have stayed with us long after the lockdown has been lifted. 

This rapid change has led psychologists to engage in a frenzy of research to see how increased use of technology affects us in the longer term, Smyth explains. 

“The biggest concerns and causes of anxiety by far are around the impact of AI on people’s jobs,” adds Ian Pay, ICAEW’s Head of Data Analytics. “It’s human nature to fear change and the pace at which AI is driving that change can be alarming for many. But, crucially, we aren’t looking at a wholesale replacement of humans by robots just yet, we have time to adjust the way that we work and the skills that we have to make the most of these innovations.” 

Evidence suggests that not all of the effects of the rapid onset of technological change are negative, says Smyth’s colleague Rokas Sungaila, Assistant Lecturer in Psychology. “Dr Lina Gega described how digital media can affect us very eloquently when she said: ‘Digital media is like a gust of air; it can fuel as much as blow out a fire’.”

Supportive role

Indeed, a recent study by Oracle found that people looked to AI to support their mental health more than fear its impact. Just 18% of respondents said they would prefer humans to support their mental health over AI, as they felt AI provided a judgement-free, non-biased outlet with which to share problems. 

More than two thirds (68%) preferred to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work and 80% were open to having an AI as a therapist or counsellor. Three quarters also said that AI had helped their mental health at work, by providing information they needed to do their job effectively, automating tasks to decrease their workload and helping with task prioritisation. 

So the picture around AI is mixed: people can see the benefits of using it, but are wary about how it might be used. In a US study by MITRE and the Harris Poll, 78% of respondents were concerned that AI can be used for malicious intent, and 82% wanted more regulation over AI to reduce risks.

Stuart Cobbe, Principal Consultant for The Analytical Accountant, has been looking into uses for generative AI in accountancy. He says that while large generative models look likely to have a massive impact on the workplace, they are not a panacea for all tasks that accountants carry out. 

“The roles of human supervision, judgement and design thinking are more critical than ever,” he says. “The best way to manage the anxiety around AI is to get used to using generative models in everyday work, learning their strengths and weaknesses. It’s likely that professionals of all kinds will find these models as part of their every day workflow. Using them effectively should lead to better, higher quality work and a larger positive impact on society as a whole.”

Pay adds that those accountants feeling anxiety around the role of AI should recognise the things that are out of their control. “Energy spent being anxious or worried about them is effectively wasted, so try to focus on what’s within your control, so you can start to do something about it. 

“For most of us, the march of AI is outside of our control – we’re not the ones developing the tools. What we can do is take steps to increase our understanding and awareness of the technology, so we can start to think about how to incorporate it into our lives, rather than push against it or stick our heads in the sand.”

Pay encourages members in management and leadership positions to consider change management from a people perspective. Organisations and firms should support their staff to understand what changes in technology might mean for them. Listen to any concerns staff might have and make sure your teams are brought along for the ride when undergoing any technological transformation, rather than imposing technologies upon them. 

“Crucially, like so often is the case with mental health and anxiety, talking about it makes a big difference. Breaking down broad, sweeping concerns into smaller, more manageable aspects may help provide focus and make any solutions feel more achievable. This is just as true with AI as it is with anything else.”

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Read our recent articles on mental health here:

Mental health & wellbeing

ICAEW works with caba to promote the mental health of chartered accountants and their families. Take a look through these articles, guides, webinars and events.

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