Digitalisation is a threat as much as an opportunity for workers, experts say

“Digitalisation is a great opportunity for all of those who want a different working arrangement,” said Katarina Ivankovic-Kneževic, Director for Social Affairs at the European Commission.  [European Union, 2017]

While digitalisation offers more flexible forms of work, it can also be a threat to well-being and encroach on work-life balance, policymakers warned during an event organised by EURACTIV.

Parental care is often the first thing that comes to mind when talking about better work-life balance. And digitalisation can certainly ease the process. 

“Digitalisation is a great opportunity for all of those who want a different working arrangement,” said Katarina Ivankovic-Kneževic, Director for Social Affairs at the European Commission. 

The work-life balance directive entered into force on 1 July. But as member states prepare to implement it, policymakers say the digital revolution also has its pitfalls.

“What happens when employees have the feeling that they have to be constantly available?” said Ivankovic-Kneževic.

When EURACTIV asked event participants if they ever checked their emails before going to bed, a majority of people raised their hands.

“We need to tackle the threats that come alone with digitalisation. We need to speak more about work-life balance and especially well-being,” said Kinga Joó from the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an EU consultative body. For instance, Jóo explained that she has imposed some kind of “family policy” that prevents both her husband and herself from bringing work at home.

“The boundaries between private life and work have become more blurred,” remarked Claire Dhéret, from the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think tank. 

EU lawmakers give green light to strengthening parents and carers' rights

The European Parliament backed on Thursday (4 April) the work-life balance directive, which introduces a set of minimum standards to help reconcile work and family responsibilities for parents and carers in Europe, and thus improve gender equality. 

A new world of work

Digitalisation also requires new skills from workers, which can become a source of anxiety for older employees. And it can increase non-traditional forms of work such as self-employment, or the so-called “gig economy”.

“As any transformation in the labour market, digitalisation brings some benefits but also some risks,” Claire Dhéret explained.

Among the upsides, for instance, she pointed to the ability of platforms “to attract people excluded from the labour market.” The downside, however, it is that these workers often lack predictability “in terms of working time but also in terms of income,” she said.

This can lead to mental health issues, which can worsen because self-employed people may also lack access to healthcare and social protection compared to traditional employees. 

“One in five EU working adults will expect to be diagnosed in their working life with some mental illness condition,” said Gary Shaughnessy, from the Zurich Foundation, which supported the EURACTIV event.

Mental health issues cost EU countries more than €600 billion

In many EU countries, mental health is still a taboo. However, the economic impact of psychological disorders is a loss of 4% of GDP and changes in the labour market only aggravate the situation, according to a report by the OECD.

Social policy high on the agenda

The European Commission has promoted workers’ rights in recent years, with the adoption of the work-life balance directive or the directive on transparent working conditions. But much more still needs to be done under the next Commission. 

“I think we have done most of the work. Now it is up to the member states to implement,” said  Monika Pozderac, Counsellor on employment and social policy at the Permanent Representation of Croatia to the EU.

The Croat official called for “changing mindsets” so that employers understand that “investing in their employees is an asset.”

While workers’ representation is key, Claire Dhéret also called for strengthening social protection systems. “It is a role for the EU to take ownership because solutions will not be found at national level,” Dhéret said, stressing the need to involve the private sector in the discussion too. 

Gary Shaughnessy, for his part, called for raising mental health issues “at much higher levels,” including on prevention and inclusion aspects.

“We have tackled many challenges but there is a lot of work ahead,” Katarina Ivankovic-Kneževic said. “The biggest homework for the Commission is to keep the social pillar high on the agenda.” 

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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