35 Years Under Electronic Monitoring and Still Waiting for Worker Rights

Lisa Kresgeand MT Snyder

Concern over computer-based workplace performance monitoring has been growing over the past few years. Ongoing media coverage of employers scrambling to monitor workers’ productivity while working from home during the pandemic and since is one reason for the growing attention. Even before the pandemic, advocates and scholars were raising concerns about workplace surveillance as employers throughout the past decade increasingly turned toward data-driven management strategies. Likewise legal scholars have been sounding alarms that the US policy landscape is not up to the task to protect workers in the digital economy.

But we’ve been here before. In fact, concern over electronic performance monitoring (EPM) emerged in the 1980s with computer and communications technology innovations that were capable of monitoring workers’ activities and job performance. These developments led the United States Congress to request the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to conduct a study to better understand these systems and their effects on workers. The OTA published its findings in a 1987 report entitled The Electronic Supervisor: New technology, New Tensions.

At the time, the authors recognized the potential for employers to misuse and abuse new technologies resulting in adverse effects for workers. They also recognized the gaps in existing legal protections for workers. However, the role of the OTA was to provide research and information to Congress, not specific legislative recommendations. Thus, the report authors outlined factors to consider regarding “whether and when” to take legislative action.

Against the stack of factors suggesting that Congress might consider taking immediate action, the authors identified several areas of uncertainty that might justify a “wait and see” approach. First, the authors highlighted the “state of scientific uncertainty” regarding whether monitoring could cause worker stress. Alongside this concern the authors considered the possibility that market forces might be enough to constrain employer misuse and abuse of new monitoring technologies and therefore negate the need for Congressional action.

In this blog post, we take stock of what’s happened over the past 35 years since the OTA published its report to see if we have more clarity over the areas of uncertainty raised by the authors.

Decades of research link electronic performance monitoring with worker stress and other harms

The strongest argument for Congress to take a “wait and see” approach on regulating EPM, according to the OTA report authors, was the “scientific uncertainty” in research on the effects of electronic monitoring on stress and health. Since then, over three decades of research has provided clarity on the effects of electronic performance monitoring on working conditions and workers. A 2022 comprehensive meta-analysis of 94 research studies concluded that EPM systems increase stress for workers, regardless of the monitoring systems’ specific characteristics. The studies included in the analysis focused on a range of stress indicators from psychological strains to physiological conditions, with all studies finding consistent EPM effects on worker stress.

For example, industry-specific studies in call centers have found that intensive performance monitoring contributes to emotional exhaustion, depression, and anxiety. Other studies have found that workers at workplaces with EPM systems are more likely to have had physical complaints (e.g., back pain, headache, stiffness in shoulders and neck), or to have experienced anxiety, tension, burnout, or depression. Researchers suggest that workers’ stress results from their efforts to regulate behavior and manage emotions in response to the sense of pressure they feel due to intensive performance monitoring.

The fact and knowledge of being closely monitored directly increases stress for workers, but the impacts of EPM systems on working conditions, job/task design, and work environment can indirectly increase stress for workers as well. Working conditions can worsen based on how employers implement performance management systems, such as the level of invasiveness, fairness, transparency, or synchronicity of the monitoring. For example, workers’ private or non-work activities such as going to the bathroom may be monitored in order to improve performance. One major company, Amazon, measures and disciplines warehouse workers for their Time Off Task (TOT), which includes restroom breaks.

Performance monitoring systems can impact job/task design in many ways, such as intensifying work and reducing autonomy in choice of work methods. These systems require workers’ tasks to be quantified so that they are legible to computers. However, this quantification of work can simplify job tasks and reduce worker decision-making and discretion in their work. Researchers have also found that EPM increases the risk that workers cannot control their pace of work.

Additionally, these systems can negatively impact the work environment and culture by damaging relationships between managers and workers, as well as among workers. A study of bank workers in the UK found that caring relationships between coworkers were undermined and competition between workers increased after performance management systems were implemented.

EPM systems affect different groups of workers differently. Recent research has found that older workers may face increased age discrimination in workplaces with EPM. Low-wage workers, who are often women and people of color, may experience electronic performance management differently than higher wage workers. In addition, individual personality traits can compound the impacts of EPM, increasing stress while decreasing job satisfaction, motivation, and commitment.

Importantly, the 2022 meta-analysis study found “little evidence” that electronic performance monitoring systems actually increase worker performance. Despite these findings, we have seen what appears to be widespread adoption of worker performance monitoring systems by employers. For example, research conducted in 2021 by Gartner indicates that 60% of large companies monitor workers.

Market forces have not reined in electronic monitoring

The 1987 OTA report authors posited that market forces might naturally curb employer use, misuse, and abuse of monitoring technologies, though the authors were skeptical of this argument. As they predicted, the last several decades have shown that labor market trends have actually increased the likelihood of employers misusing and abusing such technologies.

Contrary to the notion that worker power could dissuade employers from excessive monitoring, the opposite has happened. Worker power has eroded over the past several decades. Although there are multiple examples of union collective bargaining agreements designed to protect workers from employer monitoring and performance management practices, unions still do not have mandatory rights to negotiate over the design and adoption of new technologies (rather than just the effects of the employer’s decision to introduce new technologies), and even fewer workers are covered by unions today.

Moreover, the OTA authors foresaw that employers might utilize high attrition rates as a cost-cutting strategy. As predicted, many employers have adopted lean business models that emphasize labor market flexibility—employee liquidity—as a source of profitability. Workers facing increased job insecurity, uncertainty, and precarity are less likely to push back against employers for fear of job loss.

The scale of employer adoption of monitoring technologies has continued to increase over the past several decades. Within two decades of the OTA report, one-third of the US workforce was estimated to experience electronic monitoring, and recent estimates suggest these numbers continue to increase.

Recognizing that “the full extent of electronic monitoring techniques may have yet to be realized, and we might see monitoring expand into more and different jobs,” the 1987 OTA report foreshadowed the potential for future technologies to enable employers to unobtrusively collect more types of information; to easily capture, store, and share data; and to analyze it for further use. And this is precisely what has happened.

Within a few decades, the internet along with biometric identifiers, radio frequency ID tags, and GPS have enabled employers to monitor workers’ location, activities, tasks, and social interactions of workers in a wide range of industries. More recently, wearables (e.g., wristbands or badges), apps installed on workers’ mobile phones or employer provided devices, dash cameras and sensors embedded in vehicles, and workplace equipment have continued to expand the scope of monitoring.

What’s notable about many new technologies is that they move beyond simply monitoring workers; instead they are designed to capture workers’ activity data for further analysis that can be used to manage them. Many of these technological systems are designed to continuously and instantaneously analyze workers’ activity data against a variety of metrics to evaluate their performance. Rather than simply generating worker activity reports for managers, these systems can provide instantaneous information and feedback to managers and the workers themselves. Managers equipped with this information can immediately coach or discipline workers. For workers, the real-time feedback from the system is designed to nudge their behavior in the moment in ways that conform to management priorities as if they were robots, such as increasing the pace of work or satisfying customers’ emotional needs.

The evidence on EPM points to the need for workplace technology regulations and increased worker protections

Over 35 years have passed since the OTA published the “Electronic Supervisor” report. We have much more certainty, based on decades of research, that EPM systems do increase worker stress and other harms. Market forces have not “dissuade[d] employers from monitoring practices that their workers find onerous” and instead has incentivized abusive monitoring practices. In fact, technology development and employer use has headed further down the road toward the very conditions that researchers have identified as factors that create workplace stress and poor health outcomes for workers. And yet, workers still have few protections against employer misuse and abuse of performance monitoring and management technologies. The evidence does not support the “wait and see” approach; it is time for policymakers to take action to ensure workers have rights and protections in the use of electronic performance monitoring.