This is an edited version of a paper I will be presenting at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference at Aston University in Birmingham.
Why do companies want us to be healthy?
In recent years private organizations have become increasingly interested in making people healthy. This can partly be seen through investment in commercially available health and wellness products, although health has long been commercialized. More significant is the increased investment which organizations have put into wellness programmes designed to improve the health of their employees. Wellness programmes have been around for the past few decades and became quite prominent in USA in the 1980s before spreading to the rest of the world from the 1990s onwards. More recently is an interest which private organisations are showing in improving the general health of the population beyond their customers and employees.
From the 18th century onwards health became a concern of nation states when they started to realise that they needed in a healthy population in order to generate wealth and have a functioning society. This inclusion of health in the political sphere is what Michel Foucault referred to as the “Birth of Biopolitics”. Until the late 20th century health remained either an individual/family or state concern. What I am trying to deal with here is how health is starting to become a corporate concern. Specifically, I am doing this through analysis of the sale of digital self-tracking devices and their use in corporate wellness programmes. It is my assertion that the interest which companies are showing in health is driven by a desire to create a productive workforce but also philanthropic drive to do good. Furthermore, I suggest that these two concerns are becoming inseparable so that health and productivity are conflated through the veneration of “activity”.
Sociologists have suggested that corporate wellness programmes are not simply methods of improving health. Rather they are used to discipline workers and to transmit a work culture to the individual. Wellness programmes are as much concerned with promoting a culture of hard work, goal orientation and self-discipline as they are with making healthier workers. It is quite straightforward to see corporate wellness programmes which use self-tracking devices as consistent with these kinds of management ideologies.
Initiatives such as Global Corporate Challenge and Fitbit Wellness are marketed to employers on the basis that they can “create a culture of wellness”, “increase productivity” “boost acquisition & retention” and encourage “stronger engagement” and “better teamwork”. These programmes can be seen as a means of employers exercising control over today’s “autonomous workers” who won’t submit to traditional authoritarian control so instead power is exerted through “transferring constraints from external organizational mechanisms to people’s internal dispositions” (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005: 80). That is, individual goals are aligned with those of the organization.
Self-tracking wellness programmes can do this by normalising principles which would make people good employees and making these part of peoples’ individual subjectivity and identity. Self-tracking encourages people to quantify their activities, constantly analyse performance, compare themselves to others and to seek to optimise themselves. Anyone who transfers these practices to their work is likely to be a model employee.
However, it is not just the health of their employees which companies want to improve. As the organisation Business for Social Responsibility has identified there is:
increasing pressure to improve health outcomes by promoting wellness and prevention—not only for their employees, but for the broader population that is impacted by corporate actions. Stakeholders from employees, government, community organizations, consumers, and investors recognize that private sector action—whether it involves siting a new facility, developing a new consumer product, investing in local communities, or advocating a position on a public issue —reflects a sphere of influence that extends well beyond a company’s core employee base.
Companies are increasingly aware that “millennial” consumers and employees want to use and work for companies whose values match theirs. Therefore companies are focusing on demonstrating their ethical credentials and “employer brand”.
“Doing good” is a central aspect of the elite corporate identity with figures such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg seemingly competing in the philanthropic stakes and few managers are ever without a charitable project or Just Giving Page for a marathon run. But such philanthropy is usually far from simply altruistic. Philanthropy is not something which happens outside of business hours or in addition to commercial activity, rather, it is part of ‘competitiveness planning’. This is, rather, “philanthrocapitalism” or:
the idea that capitalism is or can be charitable in and of itself. The claim is that capitalist mechanisms are superior to all others (especially the state) when it comes to not only creating economic but also human progress; that the market and market actors are or should be made the prime creators of the good society (Thorup, 2013: 556).
For Bill Gates the best way to tackle global public health problems is to apply the innovation and business practices which made him a billionaire with Microsoft. Similarly, companies believe that the health of their employees is intrinsically tied to their bottom line so that the same principles can be applied to improving health as to improving productivity. Also, business and management practices are the best way to tackle public health issues more broadly.
So just as business models are being used to tackle social problems so are management models being used to tackle health issues. This is mostly seen in the focus on activity and productivity. Self-tracking devices overwhelmingly focus on increasing activity as this is something which is technologically easy to track, standardize and compare. Fitbit conflate work and wellness in the advertising for their Surge smartwatch:
But, also, work better.
Designed with advanced smartwatch features, Surge lets you run your day, your way. Text and call notifications keep you on your game throughout the day, while music control helps you to find the motivation you need to prepare for a big meeting or beat your best time in a big race.
They also offer advice on how to integrate exercise and work through “sweatworking” rather than networking.
I suggest that companies see the economic benefits in improving the health of their employees and of selling health to consumers but are also driven by a desire to improve the health of the population in general. Welfare spending has been driven down and public health is focusing ever more on personalised medicine and taking responsibility for our health rather than structural causes and solutions. In this context self-tracking is likely to look like an ever more desirable approach and companies will see more opportunities to intervene. When technologies and managements systems built for the maximization of productivity are applied to exercise it makes sense that exercise will start to seem more like work.
Boltanski, L. and Chiapello, E. (2005). The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso.
Thorup, M. (2013). ‘Pro Bono? On philanthrocapitalism as ideological answer to inequality’. ephemera: theory & politics in organization 13(3): 555-576.