Why do companies care how we feel?

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Many workplaces will have a staff survey of some kind in which they’ll probably ask how you feel about your stress levels, job satisfaction, sense of appreciation and opinion of your boss and perhaps colleagues. They might even ask if you think your employer “cares” about you.

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Some businesses are also using sentiment analysis and machine learning to assess staff interactions via email and internal social networks and collaboration tools to access “real time” feelings. It’s rare for companies to expend time, effort and money on things which don’t impact their profitability so why do they care so much? And why more now than in the past?

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Some thinkers claim that the energy which now drives capitalism is creative and affective. So it is emotions and desire, rather than brute force, which turn the wheels of productivity.

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In the early industrial period what was needed to produce the commodities which were bought and sold in commercial markets was physical force. Spinning cotton into materials for clothes or forming steel into cars required machines and humans to expend and direct large quantities of physical energy. While today globally we still produce lots of “things” which consumes huge quantities of energy there are many industries which instead require mental and emotional force to produce their commodities.

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“Creative” industries such as advertising, video game production or journalism are dependent on workers who generate and work with ideas. But almost any profession which requires workers to engage with the public or “clients” also needs people to have “soft” skills or to conduct “emotional labour” of some kind.

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The digital economy has increased the need for creative and emotional input from workers as social networking and the production of “content” for blogs or social media becomes a part of many professions. Also, the employment market demands that people are constantly managing online profiles (on sites such as Linkedin) to build up networks of contacts to make themselves more employable.

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The dominant “industrial illnesses” of a particular era are often indicative of the kinds of work which are required of people and the sort of energy consumed by production. There have been big increases in conditions associated with “sedentarism” (such as obesity) at the same time that there have been increases in stress and anxiety. All of these seem to speak to a reduction in the expending of physical energy at the same time as an increase in the use of mental and emotional energy.

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This means that employers have to find ways to keep the right kinds of energy levels high amongst their workers. Today human resource management discourse is often very concerned with the balance between “employee engagement” and “burnout“, that is, how to keep people excited and enthusiastic about work but not worn out.

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Increasingly, stimulating “happiness is seen as one of the best ways to do this. Managers and providers or proponents of “workplace wellness” programmes claim that not only is a happy worker a good worker but happiness itself is a key component of business success and high levels of happiness are directly related to profits.

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What all of this seems to speak of is what Bernard Stiegler (21010: 63) has referred to as “capitalism’s second limit”. The “first limit” was the tendency of the rate of profit to fall  (competition and investment in production methods reduce profits). The “second limit” occurs because the generation of value in contemporary capitalism requires ever more emotional investment which is “used up” at an increasingly quick rate.

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At the same time that work puts more and more emotional demands on us we are increasingly bombarded with media which demand our emotional engagement. Photographs of our friends’ babies or holidays which we must be happy or jealous of, political scandals which we have to be angry about and endless petitions which pull on our heartstrings all drain our emotional resources. We don’t have limitless capacities to care, be happy or angry and these are getting used up quicker than ever. Things which are scarce tend to be valuable so while our employers used to only have to find ways of keeping our bodies functioning to maximize their profits now they must try to attract and stimulate our emotional (not just our physical) muscles.

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Stiegler, B. (2010) Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California. 

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