Should AI Keep Tabs on Your Employees’ Emotions?

Using AI to monitor employee emotions could help them manage stress but also could lead to even unhappier workers.

I’ve heard about artificial intelligence (AI) monitoring employee productivity and work patterns, but until now, I hadn’t considered the possibility of an AI bot tracking my emotions at work. With so many of my emotions negative (I’m a sensitive person who is easily irritated), that possibility frightens me.

“The AI might track vocal tone, facial expressions, or body movements,” a source told Cory Smith of Komo News.

I have what might be called “Resting Sad Girl Face”—meaning my face’s default look tends to be sad. It’s gotten better with age, but when I was young, it was common for people to ask me what was wrong—even when nothing in particular (other than usual irritants) was wrong. What would AI make of my face? Would it report to the higher-ups that I was miserable?

I have heard that it’s important for employees to keep up appearances of being happy because no one wants to work with someone who’s miserable. As an intern at a small magazine during graduate school, a meeting was prompted by my visible unhappiness. “We don’t want you to be miserable here,” my manager told me.

“I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ve been miserable my whole life,” I said in all seriousness.

The manager didn’t respond well to that reassurance, so I resigned that same day.

Smartest Not Always the Happiest

There are many people who are not happy people—and some who are happy much of the time, but appear sad—who are nonetheless terrific employees. The smartest people in the world are not necessarily the happiest. In fact, it’s safe to say they are almost never the happiest people. Would an AI program that flags unhappiness put those smart but perennially unhappy people on the road to forced resignation? After all, how many meetings can a person tolerate in which they are asked, “Are you OK?”

“No, not OK, but still able to do the work you need done and I need to get paid for,” an overly honest employee flagged by AI as unhappy might respond. Something tells me they wouldn’t long be an employee of that company!

Flagging Work Group Unhappiness

On the other hand, there are benefits to flagging unhappiness and anxiety. What if it isn’t just a random individual here or there that the AI system flags as unhappy or anxious, but most of the members of a particular work group or department? In those cases, the conversation can skip the employees (who likely will not feel free to be honest) and go directly to the manager.

“Bob, our AI system has flagged nearly every member of your team as being at a high risk for stress and anxiety. Do you know why that might be?”

Bob probably won’t tell the truth, but just telling him that you know his employees are likely unhappy may force him to change his ways. It would be an interesting experiment to see what happens to the non-verbal emotional cues AI picks up on after a manager has been spoken to. The manager then knows their employees’ level of happiness is being monitored. They may feel compelled, not from kindness or humanity but self-preservation, to start being nice and considerate, or at least more reasonable about work-life balance.

Helpful for Employee Outreach

Technology that flags potential unhappiness also could be beneficial in employee outreach if your organization prides itself on providing mental health services. You could train managers on how to best talk to an employee who is suspected of being at high risk for depression and anxiety.

Approaching an employee and asking them what’s wrong, or whether they’re OK, seems like it wouldn’t necessarily be the best way to have the depression and anxiety conversation. The organization could bring in a psychologist to provide a training session for managers on the best ways to have that conversation to ensure all employees in need of mental health help receive it.

What do you think of the idea of using AI to monitor employee emotions? Can any good come of it?