In his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), describes the fourth industrial revolution as being distinctly different from the previous three industrial revolutions which were primarily characterised by advances in technology. The fundamental basis for 4IR is found in the advances in communication and connectivity brought about by technology. It is well established that these communication-orientated technologies have the potential to connect billions of people via the World Wide Web, and to play a part in significantly improving the efficiency of business and organisations. What’s more, while previous revolutions changed what we did and how we did it, 4IR has a direct impact on who we are and how we see ourselves. 1
Professor Schwab writes about the human element within the Fourth Industrial Revolution as follows:
“…we must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril. Today’s decision-makers, however, are too often trapped in traditional, linear thinking, or too absorbed by the multiple crises demanding their attention, to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.
In the end, it all comes down to people and values. We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them.2
The good and the bad – positive and negative attributes of 4IR
In her presentation at EAPA-SA and Pan African Eduweek, Dr Marion Borcherds, Group Employee Wellness and Transformation Manager at Transnet, brought to delegates’ attention many of the positive changes brought about by 4IR – including how being connected in the Digital Age can give people opportunities to learn and earn in new ways, and gain access to new and expanded markets for products and services. These positive attributes have the power to give people new identities and a new lease on life as they see fresh potential for themselves, not previously available. However, as mentioned by Dr Borcherds, on the flip side, some of the negative changes brought by 4IR include:
- Always being connected can turn into a liability, with no rest from a continuous overload of data and connections. This, and an “always on” expectation from employers intensified by the fact that technology facilitates an increased rate of work, can lead to burn-out.
- Jobs may be impacted as artificial intelligence (AI) automates a variety of tasks:
- While AI does have the power to transform many jobs so that workers are able to spend time on more creative, collaborative and complex problem solving jobs, this will leave workers with less education and fewer skills at a disadvantage.
- Businesses will, therefore, have to focus on training people and developing talent.
- Ongoing career re-skilling and re-invention will be critical to people’s sustainable futures.
- The ever-increasing power of technology, which continually leads to innovation, means that people are becoming more connected. But it does not necessarily follow that we will become a more open, diverse and inclusive global society.
- The downside of interacting with artificial intelligence (AI) is that these encounters lack any human element. They are without compassion.
The human capital and workplace implications: Are Human Resources and Employee Assistance Practitioners in South Africa prepared?
In light of the radical disruption to the workplace brought by 4IR, HR practitioners are expected to deal not only with monumental shifts in the way their organisation manages human capital, but also with the direct impact of new technology on their own duties. 3
As the disruptive work environment requires increased support and more diverse services from employee assistance practitioners, Dr Borcherds asks, “How well are EAPs equipped to best support employees moving forward into the future? The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us and accordingly we, as EA Professionals, need to change the way we look at mental health issues. In addition, we need to be open -minded and have the know-how to employ technology that makes EAP services more accessible to more people.”
Stress and burnout in the workplace: Balance is essential to thriving in 4IR
Employees are definitely more at risk of burnout than they were a decade ago. Experts are saying that it is not just about being overworked – there are other factors that contribute to burnout. One of these is that people are always connected, which may well be the primary reason burnout is escalating. Prior to smart phones, leaving one’s work at the office was the norm. Today, employees carry their work environment around in their hand and sometimes are made to feel guilty if they are not available to respond to an email or text, 24/7. In a nutshell, too much overtime and after-hours work is a major contributor to employee burnout.
Change management in the workplace: Helping employees to adapt to change and re-skilling
The concept of a traditional, lifelong career is long gone. In previous industrial revolutions society was transformed over generations, where each new generation learned new ‘tricks of the trade’. However, 4IR has already brought incredible transformation in the workplace within one working generation – bringing with it the need for employees to both adapt to change and re-skill in order to perform their jobs. With the escalating rate of change, organisations will have to continually assist employees to adapt to change and re-skill, providing continuous learning experiences that allow employees to build skills quickly, easily and on their own terms. 4
Soft skills in the workplace: Helping employees develop essential soft skills
The fourth industrial revolution will be powered by both soft and hard skills and it will take a combination of technical expertise, creativity and emotional intelligence – which includes problem solving, communication skills and collaboration – to prosper in this new business landscape. Employee Assistance Practitioners are uniquely placed to assist organisations in this regard, because EAPs remain connected with the organisation long after the classroom training phase of a programme is completed.