Uncertainty, technology and wellbeing

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Are we living in the best of times or the worst of times? If Charles Dickens were asked this question having only been able to consume our daily news channels, I am sure even he would conclude the latter.

Of course, the message from the beginning to his great novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is that we simultaneously live both in an ‘age of wisdom’ and an ‘age of foolishness’, an ‘epoch of belief’, and an ‘epoch of incredulity’, a ‘season of light’, and a ‘season of darkness’, a ‘spring of hope’, and a ‘winter of despair’.

Dickens may have been writing about late 18th Century France and England, but the dizzying pace at which change seems to be happening now, coupled with the size and scale of the challenges we face, forces us all to wonder – with some fear and trepidation, as well as a modicum of hope – what lies ahead.

Without a clear idea of what the future holds, the danger is we can become cynical, anxious and even scared. After all, this is what risk is about – not knowing whether something negative, bad or unwanted is going to happen. And not being able to manage or control it.

Mike Robinson: "Without a clear idea of what the future holds, the danger is we can become cynical, anxious and even scared."

Which is why, at the recent party conferences, leading figures on all sides sought to paint and ‘own’ a picture of a future that will be more exciting and rewarding. We were assured this will be driven and enabled by technology, assisted by artificial intelligence (AI), and made possible by automation. All of which we are told is hurtling down the track, so fasten your seatbelts.

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, famously said “Change is the only constant” and it’s something of a cliché to say we are living through a period of great change. But sometimes change can seem to be getting the better of us and the risk is we are simply left behind.

Take the workplace, where a shortage of labour and a surfeit of vacancies is piling pressure on organisations trying to deliver goods and services in the face of increased demand.

A combination of Covid, lower migration and global supply pressures is forcing many businesses to consider investing in new technologies, perhaps instead of taking on more, higher skilled people. This should make them more productive in the longer term, but in the short term may bring a great deal of pain.

Ultimately, the success of any business will rest on the health, happiness and wellbeing of its workers, even one which depends on technology. Introduced carefully and with thought, innovations like AI and robots can help free people to do better, more rewarding work.

But the tension between improving workers’ pay, conditions and satisfaction on the one hand and increasing levels of productivity and efficiency on the other is not going to go away. So, it is vital that all leaders put the wellbeing of staff at the forefront of their thinking and make it an issue that is discussed, considered, and acted on from board level down.

Our ‘Keep Thriving’ campaign, which we launched this summer, is calling on employers to give their staff the right tools, training and reporting methods. We will be encouraging MPs and politicians to get behind our drive to improve the wellbeing of workers, both in and outside the workplace, so all of us can thrive.

Only then can we hope to both improve our prospects, both economically and as human beings, and make the coming years the best of times.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council


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