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Workplace Wellbeing Is a Scam

As conditions at work deteriorate, the number of 'employee wellbeing schemes' is on the rise – but no amount of self-care can substitute for a living wage, manageable hours and secure employment.

At this point, nearly everyone I know who has a job has been subjected to workplace wellness initiatives. Often, these take the form of an organisation-wide email from the human resources department providing unsolicited tips on stress reduction, mindfulness, and self-care. At other times, they make demands of employees that go beyond just deleting an email.

Katie’s* company implemented mandatory meditation seminars in order to improve employee mental health. ‘We have had to go through eight-week and two-week seminar programs to learn mindfulness,’ she says. ‘They’re basically only good if you’ve never meditated before.’

Katie told Tribune that her company also implemented a ‘recharging’ hour each workday that’s meant to be free of meetings – but meetings are regularly scheduled in that time anyway, thus making the initiative nothing more than a toothless gesture. Even if the no-meeting rule were enforced, though, employees would still be expected to remain in the office doing their jobs. They wouldn’t be free to use their daily ‘recharging’ hour to take a nap, or go for a walk, or pursue their hobbies – things that might actually make them happier and healthier than working.

The real problem with workplace wellness initiatives, according to Katie—beyond being inconvenient and vapid—is their obvious attempt to make up for the company’s poor employee benefits. ‘Everyone loves to talk about how wellness is important, but we have one of the worst benefits packages for mental health,’ she says. ‘And if you bring it up, you get in trouble.’

Katie’s healthcare plan does not cover most mental healthcare. In order to see a therapist, she pays $600-$800 Canadian (about £350-£470) each month out of pocket. When she mentioned this to her company’s human resources department during a ‘safe space’ meeting, she was told that they just couldn’t afford a better plan.

Katie is not alone in these experiences, and nor are they confined to Canada. For office-based workers worldwide, the language of ‘wellbeing’ in the corporate environment is an increasingly common and increasingly transparent imposition.

Brett* says that after his brother’s suicide, he met with his company’s human resources department to discuss taking bereavement leave. ‘I was told by the HR rep to “take as much time as you need,”’ he tells Tribune. ‘The actual corporate policy on bereavement leave? One day for family, two days for immediate family. So the HR rep was telling me to use as much of my own paid vacation and sick leave as I needed, minus two days, to grieve.’

Like Katie, Brett was told to take care of himself without being given the means to do so. On a less serious note, I am reminded of one my former workplaces, which used to send out healthy recipes, despite the fact that many employees didn’t have the time to cook.

Students in the UK report similar experiences with weekly wellbeing emails recommending the most basic of tips—stretch, open a window—as ineffectual weapons against the structural problems that make the neoliberalised university a prime spot for mental ill-health. The measures suggested might help in the immediate, but the mental health crisis is not just a case of personal habit. It’s also related to some of the defining features of our society: isolation, precarity, constant insecurity.

By exploiting these widespread fears, profit-oriented bosses can push employees to work harder and longer in jobs that also cause emotional damage in turn. The truth is that in order for employees to actually be well, they need high wages, plenty of time off, and good healthcare – preferably provided by the government.

In order to achieve that, employees need democracy at work. A foundational 1979 study by occupational sociologist Robert Karasek found that one of the biggest causes of stress in the workplace is a lack of decision-making power among workers.

Karasek’s job strain model found that the most difficult jobs not only require workers to work hard and fast, but micromanage them and impose ‘rigid rules’. These jobs are Taylorist: informed by the work of the nineteenth-century management expert Frederick Taylor, who sought to wring maximum productivity out of workers. Workers at such jobs, according to Karasek’s study, have higher rates of exhaustion and, relatedly, depression.

Journalist Emily Gundelsberger studied the effects of low-wage work on mental and physical health for her book On the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane. In order to research the book, she took jobs at a call centre, an Amazon warehouse, and a McDonald’s – the kinds of jobs that Karasek describes as the worst for mental health.

‘Usually when people complain about their job or they say it’s boring or they hate dealing with abusive customers, the only thing you get from a lot of people is, suck it up,’ she told New York Magazine. ‘Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you.

‘That is 100 percent not true, though. Anybody who has had a screaming match with somebody knows that words set off your fight-or-flight response. And when your fight-or-flight response gets set off several times a day, it breaks your body.’

One of the best ways for workers to improve what Karasek calls their ‘decision-making latitude’ is to form a worker cooperative or a union, which then can also help workers get better pay and benefits. One study even found that higher union density is associated with lower rates of death by suicide and overdose.

These, of course, are the wellness tips employers won’t offer.