This is a shorter version of a paper presented at the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona.
An increasing amount of organisations and employers are trying to find ways to make their workers healthier and happier. Many of these are turning to the use of self-tracking initiatives to do this.
Why do companies want us to be healthy? Does this corporate intervention into the management of health and happiness change how we think about it?
Naturally businesses don’t use the same kinds of approaches to improving health as public health bodies do or as we might do as individuals. Companies are obliged not to waste money on things which are not profitable and productive so inevitably health interventions become combined with a concern for profit.
For this reason I have previously suggested that we can perhaps see the increasing interest which companies are taking in health as a form of “philanthrocapitalism” or the idea that markets or market actors should be the prime creators of a good society.
So what we often see is that rather than simply interventions into improving the health of workers we get interventions which may have some positive health impacts but always with a concern for improving the bottom line as well. In the process healthiness and productivity become increasingly intertwined. I have previously outlined the relationship between self-tracking and management ideology.
Here I would like to discuss a particular aspect of how these programs are implemented and the rationale behind them. Specifically I will suggest that employers are being encouraged try to manipulate our consciousness to make us more active and more productive and self-tracking technologies are being used for this.
Below you can see a “habit loop” which is the basis of the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) approach to behaviour change and creating a healthy, happy workforce.
The principal behind this is based on a book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The basis of his approach is that almost all of our behaviours are routine and automatic. We respond to stimulus with automatic behaviours. The way to achieve healthier and more productive lives is by replacing our bad habits with good ones.
Underlying this is an assumption that “the brain can be reprogrammed”. GCC claim that their focus on exercise for improving productivity is so important because exercise is a “keystone habit”. This means that exercise makes us more susceptible to other positivie changes in our lives.
This is explained through some basic neuroscientific insights suggesting that exercise releases “brain derived neurotrophic factor” (see video) which:
“acts like fertilizer for your brain’s neurons making them grow quicker and develop stronger connections. You learn new skills and develop new habits more easily. By being active every day it becomes a platform to build other habits around. It’s a ripple effect”.
Basically this means that our brains are reshaped through the conditioning process of learning new habits through their program. As they say their initiative
“takes employees on a journey that fundamentally improve their relationship with exercise, nutrition, sleep and psychological well-being, instilling in them to new sense of personal responsibility, self-belief and resilience”.
These factors of “responsibility, self belief and resilience” are associated here with a good worker and a healthy person and the way to achieve this is through “reprogramming” people.
It has long been identified in sociological work that in order for capitalism to function the right kinds of workers need to be created. These need not only the right kinds of bodies, abilities and skills in order to conduct productive tasks but also the right kind of psychological dispositions (see for instance Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism)
Capitalists therefore need to engage in a process of what is called in German “marklichkeit” or market socialisation (see here for more). This occurs in many different ways, for instance, through the education system and the media. What is different about the case discussed here is that self-tracking technologies are being used to seemingly restructure our unconscious. The ideal of the approach outlined above is to make us act in a healthier and more productive way “without even thinking about it”.