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Downward-Facing Capitalist Dogma

Office wellbeing programs disguise companies’ base motivations with the language of care

We’re in the lobby of a large office building in West London. The atrium rises to four storeys, each in gloss white with oak accents. There are high-backed chairs around shiny black meeting tables, each with its own pendant light. On one side of the floor is a large, warehouse-like room dedicated to small firms, with tech and lifestyle startups typing in silence. On the opposite side is a sprawling set of desks and studios for larger businesses; above there is a mezzanine with meeting rooms. And on one side of the space, taking up at least a quarter of the total area, is a yurt.

The yurt, which stands a full nine feet tall in wicker and bamboo, is a dedicated “no tech” zone.

The yurt, which stands a full nine feet tall in wicker and bamboo, is a dedicated “no tech” zone. Here, employees go to hear talks led by figures from health, culture, and business, to take part in guided meditations, or to practice yoga under the instruction of a freelance yogi. This is the story in every one of the new wave of office buildings opening in every major city around the world. Here, businesses aren’t just sold desk space. Instead, they’re buying into a culture: one of networking, Friday afternoon drinks, Mario Kart tournaments, and, often, a comprehensive “employee wellbeing” program.

In London’s financial district, and especially on its outskirts as it approaches trendy, now-upmarket Shoreditch, office yoga classes are the norm. In the United States, dedicated yoga and fitness businesses advertise their services to clients large and small. The snappily named Office Yoga, which lists McKinsey, Wells Fargo, and the Department of State as customers, sums up the sell: “Sequences are designed to create mental clarity and efficiency, as well as alleviate chronic symptoms that occur from sitting.” It’s a win-win for the businesses involved, which today are mainly in the worlds of finance and tech, but whose practices are spreading rapidly to other industries: employees iron out some of the health niggles they’ve accrued through working; the company gets fitter, more engaged workers; and, theoretically, those workers evangelize about the company culture to other prospective employees.

But the “employee wellbeing” programs that are now a staple of most large or growing businesses go much further than just yoga. A quick look at the websites of some of the United States’s larger wellbeing providers gives a glimpse into the services they offer: most provide mental health support, emotional intelligence training, and financial workshops. The major focus, however, remains physical health. From obesity to cancer, employee wellbeing companies want to help workers stay in tip-top condition. A growing number are using technologically advanced methods to help them achieve this. Kamwell, a wellbeing provider in London, is one of several such companies that offer wearable tech integrations alongside their programs. Kirsten Samuel, Kamwell’s CEO, explains:

There are different levels of wearable tech being used in the workplace today. You have your standard fitness trackers such as Fitbits and Garmins, up to more advanced Heart Rate Variability technology such as Firstbeat, which analyzes stress reactions, recovery, and physical activity by matching up periods when you’re awake, travelling, drinking alcohol, or doing exercise, and the impact that has on your body. Then there’s also technology for analyzing bio data. This uses training and self-monitoring to match up the measurements from your body with periods of anxiety, fatigue, the ability to focus, or the ability to listen, and then draws conclusions about an individual’s “emotional physiology.”

This is a digital panopticon. And it’s important to note that the businesses involved are not addressing the strains and psychic dangers of the workplace by taking action to prevent them, but rather by simply treating the symptoms. Employees who take part in these programs must submit to having their every movement tracked, their every calorie counted, their every stress reaction noted and analyzed. Participation is generally optional, at least in theory, but these schemes are so deeply embedded in many companies’ HR practices, and indeed in their mandated social calendars, that opting out may be unfeasible. The risk of being seen as a “poor cultural fit” for an employer has never been so acute.

What makes employee wellbeing schemes so distasteful is their attempt to disguise companies’ base motivations with the language of care and health.

Never before have businesses had such a vast wealth of information about the people who work for them. But Samuel says that employees are generally positive about these schemes. “You never hear of employees complaining about their company wellbeing programs,” she says, “but you do hear of employees complaining that they are stressed, under-valued, poorly managed, and have no work-life balance. Employees are looking for a lot more than the standard pay rise these days, with much more emphasis on choosing their prospective employer by company culture, flexible working arrangements, and health and wellbeing benefits.”

Absent the expectation of decent workplace standards, encouragement, or fair work hours, we are coaxed and flattered into employment by the promise of a free yoga class and the illusion that we are valued. A look through the leading jobs sites, especially in the tech industry, yields page after page of information about employers’ company cultures. “We have an amazing office bar,” reads the listing for a position at a subsidiary of a New York internet group, “guitars, a drum kit, a bike mechanic workstation, extensive library, and rotating food team who make lunch for everyone.” Another, for a position at food-delivery firm Deliveroo in London, offers a “fun office complete with nap room, onsite gym, basketball court, and rooftop overlooking Tower Bridge.” (Deliveroo has something akin to a class system among its employees—compare the “luxury” of this office with the appalling way riders are treated.)

This relentless focus on company culture, of which employee wellbeing programs are a major part, represents a generational shift in the way we delineate our time. The distinction between “work” and “non-work” periods has all but disappeared. We no longer go to the pub; instead, we drink in the office. We no longer read for pleasure; instead, we take books from the workplace library to learn more about the field we’re employed in. And, with employee wellbeing schemes, employers now oversee what until recently were definitively non-work issues: sleep time, financial decisions (often including charitable contributions), even food.

Matthew Holder is the Head of Campaigns at the British Safety Council, who this month published a report into the impact of new working practices on health, safety, and wellbeing. He makes the link between “any time, any place” working culture and new, non-standard forms of work such as self-employment or casual contracts. “New technologies in the form of intelligent machines and digital communications, in combination with the growth of non-typical employment, can produce ‘over-engagement’ with work,” he says:

People take their work home with them, and many struggle to switch off and build rest and recuperation into their lives. Given this modern condition, simple divisions between employer and employed, and their associated responsibilities, are breaking down.

People do not work well if there are fatigued due to this over-engagement, and it is estimated that some 60-80 percent of accidents are due to fatigue-related judgment.

The growth of technologically advanced employee surveillance techniques also goes some way to explaining the new fervor for employee wellbeing schemes. The employee surveillance industry is focused on offering employers as granular a level of information on their workforce as possible, and this demand for detail is producing increasingly intrusive technologies. As Kaveh Waddell explored in The Atlantic in 2016, companies including Accenture, Intel, IBM, and Twitter now use sentiment analysis to track their employees’ emotions. Last year the London newspaper The Daily Telegraph installed black boxes under every desk to track when their occupant was present (a move the paper said was to improve energy efficiency, but which staff feared was for more dubious purposes). Slack, now the global standard for team communication, allows employers to monitor private chats by default. And, last month, Amazon filed a patent for a piece of wearable tech that would enable them to track warehouse packers’ hand movements on the job—an obscene intrusion into employees’ autonomy, but one that is in keeping with the tendencies of a company for whom human employment seems to be simply an annoying step on the way to full automation.

Businesses employ these techniques because they are interested in efficiencies, exactly as the Office Yoga firm we saw earlier happily admitted. It is no surprise that businesses make decisions to pad their bottom line; what makes the practice so distasteful is the way in which they attempt to disguise their base motivations with the language of care and health.

Your work will never be enough; corporations offer yoga classes to improve cognitive function, simply because it is not yet possible for them to replace us with machines that need no such care.

Yoga classes, or the bike workshop offered by the New York tech company, might be considered part of the notion of “technologies of the self.” Foucault coined the term to refer to the techniques “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” But in the case of the office yoga class, this technology of the self has been recuperated so dramatically that it is no longer about constructing selfhoods, but rather about destroying them. The endpoint of the drive towards maximum efficiency and perfect optimization is the reduction of the worker to a being less than human. Your work will never be enough; corporations offer yoga classes to improve cognitive function, simply because it is not yet possible for them to replace us with machines that need no such care. Companies boast about their wellbeing schemes in order to attract high caliber workers, but they offer them only because they are not yet in a position to automate us away.

And, tragically, we are complicit in this process. In his latest book, Psychopolitics, Korean-German theorist Byung-Chul Han argues that we are no longer subjects at all—rather, we are projects. We have internalized the language of optimization. We are entities from which negativity can be expunged in order to drive maximum productivity. The language of productivity, and the slippage between wage labor and social life, is everywhere: we Google “life hacks”; we bullet journal; we borrow the techniques of professional life coaches, who preach goal orientation and constant progression. As capital encroaches on every moment of our lives, whether waking or sleeping, our subjecthood, our autonomy, and our human essence rapidly ebb away.

This is made all the more galling because technologies of the self should, by rights, have a position at the very heart of a radical, liberatory political project. Foucault’s idea has been taken up in the U.K. by the loose grouping of thinkers organized around the “Acid Corbynism” project, including academic Jeremy Gilbert. He believes that “yoga, meditation, even psychedelics in theory, might have some kind of radical potential if they are connected to a wider culture of questioning capitalist culture and organizing politically against it.” We should consider these techniques, Gilbert says, much as we did the consciousness-raising groups of the early 1970s, in which personal and social issues were discussed as part of a drive towards liberation from patriarchal thinking.

In order to remake those connections between technologies of the self and a broader political project, we first need to recover those techniques from the totalizing spheres of work and productivity. How can we know what we truly think, what gives our lives purpose, if the entirety of our lived experience is filtered through the prism of work? How can we truly become citizens if we do not understand what we consent to? The first step is one of radical remembering, and of radical imagination; an effort to reclaim the technologies of the self from capital, and return them to our own hands.

The office yoga class might seem trivial, or even like a nice perk. But it’s emblematic of the debasement of so many of our most basic human impulses and processes by the increasingly dexterous touch of capital. We should be looking for new ways to organize, new ways to think and act ourselves into freedom. Instead, today we are on the road towards an existence plugged into a bio-monitor, our sleeping patterns logged, our calorie intake mandated by the people who pay us just enough to live.