Image: Gadgetmac // Nest Photo Follow from Fitbit Flex's Flickr Photostream

Are workplace wellness programs really about helping us to be healthy or are they trying to make us into better workers?

An increasing amount of workplaces are asking their employees to join in fun activities which help them to be healthier. One of the most popular strategies is to offer workers Fitbit style self-tracking devices. They are then put into teams to track their steps and compete against their colleagues. The idea is that it is all a bit of fun and it might help you to become more active and healthier.

These initiatives might help people to be more active. But they also promote a culture of hard work, goal orientation and self-discipline. Programmes such as Global Corporate Challenge and Fitbit Wellness claim they can “create a culture of wellness”, “increase productivity” and encourage “stronger engagement”.

Self-tracking programmes are an effective way of instilling the kinds of qualities which make us good workers. They help us to set goals (eg. walking 10, 000 steps per day). Some encourage us to compare ourselves with others (through social networking). Most prompt us to push ourselves to work harder. When used in corporate wellness they also encourage team and project work by dividing people into groups who compete against others.

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.

On the surface this sounds like a very positive development. Perhaps companies will be successful in making us healthier. Maybe business will succeed where governments (so far) have failed.

“Doing good” is a central aspect of the elite corporate identity today with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg seemingly competing to outdo each other in the philanthropic stakes. Few business managers are ever without a charitable project or Just Giving page for a marathon run.

But such philanthropy is usually far from simply altruistic. It is not something which happens outside of business, rather it is part of ‘competitiveness planning’. This is what has been called “philanthrocapitalism”:

the idea that capitalism is or can be charitable in and of itself […]that the market and market actors are or should be made the prime creators of the good society

If companies believe that the health of their employees is intrinsically tied to their bottom line then the same principles can be applied to improving health as to increasing productivity.  This leads to a conflation of work and exercise. For example, Fitbit propose we should try “sweatworking” instead of “networking” by holding meetings in the gym. Such organisational approaches are likely to favour the more able bodied and the less body conscious. They also suggest a merging of workplace culture with the optimisation of health.

In a similar vein, Amazon have recently been recruited by Public Health England (PHE) to help us to ‘live healthier’ by hosting the “One You Health Hub”. This is part of PHE’s “ground-breaking new campaign to help adults across the country avoid future diseases caused by modern day life”. As well as offering “groundbreaking” health advice (“Leading an active lifestyle is essential for a healthy body and mind”) they also give us the opportunity to “browse [their] products and kick start your new routine because there’s only One You”.

With corporations providing us with health information and designing tools for fitness intervention and our employers “nudging” us into behaving how they think we should (not just when we are at work) it might become unclear who benefits from this. When I am tracking my steps for a corporate wellness challenge am I improving my fitness or helping my employer to increase their productivity? For advocates of corporate wellness the two can, and should, be interconnected. But when combined with public-private partnerships in providing public health this means that corporations are increasingly influential on what kind of health is being promoted.

It could be a good thing that employers and companies are thinking about how they might be able to actively do some good. However, they are likely to not only try to make a profit but also use behaviour change techniques which have been successful for them in business. The kind of behaviour which Google might want to encourage in us is likely to be that which will help them to generate consumer profiles to sell to advertisers. Amazon’s health advice will be intermingled with which fitness devices they are trying to sell. It is unlikely that any of these will advocate for structural interventions. While it is probably positive that employers and corporations are interested in better health for their workers and customers it is vital to be careful that the definition of health doesn’t get appropriated by commercial interests.

About the Author: Chris Till works as a sociologist in the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University.  He has a focus on health, technologies, the body and social theory and his current research is on the use of self-tracking devices in workplace wellness initiatives.