Worker wellness programs are bad, full stop. They’re discriminatory, ineffective, and super creepy. (The number I’ve steps I’ve taken per day are between me and God, i.e., my Fitbit.) They’re also a bit of a misnomer. It would be more accurate to call them workplace wellness programs, as such programs’ efforts to improve individual workers’ physical health and well-being are ultimately in the service of increasing profit. People aren’t people, per this dystopian view of labor, but rather vectors for productivity that should be eliminated if need be.
You can see this logic at play in a new study on the economic benefits of exercise, as reported by Reuters on Wednesday. According to the study, led by health insurance group Vitality and think tank RAND Europe, employers could boost the world economy by as much as $100 billion a year if they got their workers to exercise more (think: walking 15 minutes daily or jogging every day). Exercising more would extend a person’s life expectancy, the study authors say, which will keep that person alive longer, thereby keeping them working and contributing to the global economy for longer. Adding a bit of exercise to a staffer’s daily routine would also increase their productivity in the workplace as they’d be less likely to get sick and would conceivably take fewer days off from work.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Exercising as a form of preventative health care is very real, as exercising regularly has been proven to decrease the likelihood of several chronic diseases. It’s certainly not insidious to recommend that. What is unsavory about all this is the line of thinking that masks the desire to increase profit with concern for worker wellness—a logic that might be good for capitalism, but is very bad for people. It measures a worker’s health in terms of their productivity, equating greater productivity with good health and vice versa. By this logic, a person in poor health will be a detriment to workplace productivity, and becomes “just one more expense for employers to cut,” wrote labor organizer Lena Solow in a piece about worker wellness programs for The New Republic in September.
Our mental health and physical well-being cannot be measured in terms of workplace performance, and our worth in the global capitalist system cannot be valued in terms of our contribution to the economy. No matter how low your step count for the day might be, it’s the system that’s unwell, not you. If your boss says you have to walk more, just lie and say you did.
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