In this post I will summarise and discuss a book chapter I published earlier this year as part of a great collection in the book called Quantified Lives and Vital Data: Exploring health and technology through personal medical devices edited by Rebecca Lynch and Conor Farrington.

I recently discussed another related chapter in which I analysed the discourses of the justification for corporate wellness self tracking (CWST) initiatives in which I suggested that they were built around an idea of “mobilising the social”. These are workplace interventions which encourage workers to use self-tracking devices to track their activity and compete against colleagues in competitions.

In the chapter I will discuss in this post I look at the different, although related, element of self tracking for corporate wellness in which I look more at the ethical drivers behind their implementation.

This chapter builds on a paper I published a few years ago (which I summarise here) where I suggested that self tracking is helping to conflate notions of exercise, health and work by turning activities into quantified, comparable and accumulable traces in the form of data which is potentially valuable to corporations. Exercise, therefore, starts to be productive of a valuable commodity in a similar manner to work.

Here I build on this connection between exercise and work to claim that CWST similarly positions exercise as beneficial to both the health of the individual and the productivity of company they work for.

This happens through a conflation of the personal and the economic through the notion of “employee engagement”. It is well-established in contemporary management wisdom that the personal and subjective investment of workers must be stimulated maintained in order for organisations to be productive.

CWST programs are presented as effective means of stimulating this engagement by encouraging “wellness” in the form of “self care”. That is, CW “vendors” and managers in organisations suggest that people often neglect exercise because they feel too busy at work or don’t fit it into their day, but a healthy worker will be happy and more productive.

It is professed that these kinds of interventions can stimulate and harness positive feeling (happiness) for productive ends. I suggest this is built on a realisation by organisations (and management scholars) that the kind of alienation many people have long felt from work is counter-productive. So, they realise that in order to get the most out of the worker they need to integrate all areas of their lives and personalities into the productive system.

I draw on the work of François Guéry and Didier Deleule who identified in the 1970s that capitalism was increasingly seeking to appropriate “not the means of production [but] the means of productivity of the innersprings of production’ 106. By this they meant that rather than simply selling the physical power of our bodies to our employer for 8, 9 or 10 hours of the day they now seek to harness the most fundamental and “human” aspects of joy, happiness, sociality and emotion.

Proponents of CWST propose that the most effective way to harness this power is through keeping people active. All of these programs focus their attention on encouraging people to walk, run, swim et cetera as it is assumed that this will make them healthier and more productive at work. I claim that this is part of an ideology, and moralisation, of activity today. I draw on the work of Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello and Stephan Lessenich who have made similar claims that “activity” today is seen as inherently virtuous behaviour and as the main organising principle of capitalism. So, it is necessary to keep people moving and producing all of the time.

CWST, self tracking in general and work and nonwork lives seem to attest to this. There is a constant pressure to be producing and doing things. We often feel we should be filling our time with work, tweeting, exercising, writing blog posts! It seems that we are quick to judge people who seem “lazy” or “not pulling their weight” and it is almost impossible to see someone negatively if they are “busy”, always on the go” or productive.

If you’re interested you can read more about this chapter in the book or get in touch with me for more details.