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Can generative AI solve the professional burnout problem?

Mary Alice Vuicic, chief people officer, Thomson Reuters
Mary Alice Vuicic
Mary Alice Vuicic is chief people officer for Thomson Reuters.

What did you accomplish at work today? For far too many of us, the gut response to that question would be: “Not enough.” Time-pressed, working across time zones and barraged by constant meeting alerts, emails and texts, for many professionals, the average workday has become a race against the clock to quickly triage, respond and stay one step ahead of our inboxes.

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In fact, according to our recent Future of Professionals Report, which surveyed more than 1,200 professionals working across legal, tax and accounting, global trade, and risk and compliance industries, nearly 30% of respondents feel that their work negatively impacts their mental health. A combination of increased workloads, a slew of new regulatory and compliance challenges—including a rapidly growing list of environmental, social and governance (ESG)-related issues—and a pandemic that disrupted traditional workflows and created widespread staffing shortages, have left many professionals feeling physically and mentally exhausted.

Unless HR leaders do something dramatic to change that trajectory, we’ll see a steady rise in career burnout, high attrition rates and talent shortages.

Fortunately, we are confronting this challenge at a moment in time when we have the unique opportunity to make a real change. The widespread introduction of generative artificial intelligence (gen AI)—with its promise to streamline much of the drudgery of our day-to-day work lives by automating many of the repetitive, lower-value/higher-volume tasks that we do—presents enormous potential to transform not only the way we work but also the way we think about the value of human intelligence. It may also be the tool we need to help us reconnect with the most fulfilling parts of our jobs.

Finding time in the day

Looking at the legal and accounting professions as an example, we’ve consistently found in our research that highly trained personnel are spending way too much time on low-value, low-reward tasks.

In a recent State of U.S. Small Law Firms study conducted by the Thomson Reuters Institute, 74% of law firms said they are whittling away too many hours on administrative tasks, and in the Thomson Reuters State of the Corporate Tax Department Report, we found that 64% of corporate tax professionals said the biggest obstacle preventing them from achieving their professional development goals was lack of time.

If ever there were a recipe for a technology assist, this is it. What’s more—unlike previous technology revolutions that have been met with some level of resistance—the professionals living and breathing this over-extended, unfulfilled reality every day are highly receptive to the change.

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In fact, according to our Future of Professionals Report, a majority (67%) expect generative AI to provoke a transformational or high-impact change in their professions over the next five years, and 64% said they anticipate a rise in the appreciation of their professional skills because of widespread AI adoption.

A better division of labor

That’s a big deal. It was not too long ago that pundits were predicting AI would pose a threat to many professions. Now, there is a recognition that AI is here to help.

For example, among the law firm employees we spoke with in our survey, some of the top generative AI use cases they are prioritizing save them time by conducting large-scale data analysis and performing non-billable administrative work with greater accuracy. Similarly, among tax and accounting firms, we see an emphasis on big data analysis, modeling different predictive scenarios, and automating basic communications and status updates. Nobody studies to become an attorney or CPA for years to analyze spreadsheets.

By leaning into AI to take on some of that busy work, these professionals can focus on their clients’ advanced needs. They can spend time thinking, producing creative solutions, generating new business and forming meaningful relationships with clients—all things that have gradually been stripped away over the past several years.

Most importantly, professionals will be able to focus on more fulfilling work. According to our report, long working hours and the fear of making errors or missing an important detail currently have a negative impact on the mental health of 80% of professionals. It’s clear that “task work” is hurting them.

The report also notes that the top personal motivations that drive individual career fulfillment are producing high-quality advice (67%) and maintaining a healthy work/life balance (63%). Ultimately, gen AI can eliminate the negative and enhance the positive. It can augment and elevate the work that professionals do so that they can spend more time on more fulfilling projects—and leading happier lives.

So much of the discussion around generative AI in professional services has focused on productivity, doing more with less and cost-savings. That’s part of the value proposition, but the opportunity is much bigger than that. Harnessed properly, gen AI gives human intelligence the space it needs to grow, and that is something that will help us all find greater value in our work.