Wellbeing as Coercion

The capitalistic fairytale of self-improvement and performance enhancement.

by Veronica Yates, June 21, 2023
Wellbeing as Coercion The capitalistic fairytale of Self-Improvement and Performance Enhancement

“Centuries of philosophical inquiry have failed to result in agreement about what the ‘good life’ is.” — Ruut Veenhoven

Anyone working within companies, institutions, or even on national policy developments is probably familiar with conversations around wellbeing. But is it just another buzzword? And what does wellbeing actually mean?

One Word, Many Meanings

Wellbeing is not a new concept. However, there is not a single, agreed, definition beyond the common dictionary defining the term as the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.’

Historians trace the concept of wellbeing to two separate strands in ancient Greece: one was Aristotle's idea of the good life, Eudaimonia, which considers everything about our lives and how this aligns with purpose. The other is Hedonia, from the Epicureans’ belief that pleasure is good and is something we should aspire to.

In more recent decades, people are suggesting that wellbeing is not just about the individual, but also the community and even the nation, including how sustainable that might be for the future.

Wellbeing - A Measurable Reference Point?

This has led some international economists to argue that wellbeing is a better measurement of people’s overall quality of life than, say, GDP, which mostly measures growth, but not human progress. The change in direction happened because the economists recognised that rising wealth did not necessarily improve people’s life satisfaction, nor did it take into account the impact of material growth on the planet.

A growing number of countries today include the measurement of wellbeing in their national indexes and as a political coefficient. This trickles down into many areas of our lives. And it means that the concept needs to be measurable.

Be Cautious of the Consciousness-Industry

With the global growing mental crisis, as well as burnout and other work related illnesses on the rise, and a majority of people reporting that their jobs have no value, employers are taking notice.

In Understanding Wellbeing Data, Susan Osman explains that we live in an ‘audit culture’ or ‘audit society,’ where we measure everything simply because we can. But the consequence of this is that people who are constantly being audited, for example, at work through being asked to fill out surveys about their wellbeing or mental health, have reported increasing anxiety and feelings of being constantly watched.

Byung-Chul Han warns that healing, wellbeing, self-care, what he calls the ‘consciousness industry’ is yet another neoliberal advertisement we should view with suspicion. The purpose is to make us function better within the system; but the system is the problem.

What tends to happen is that seemingly well-intentioned initiatives become, at best, tick box exercises, not a fundamental rethink of work and how we live. When inequality and cost of living rises, we are offered ping-pong tables, meditation rooms and bring-your-pet-to-work days. And if that doesn’t make us happy, it’s our fault, we need to take time out of our lives to fix ourselves, we need self-care.

A Capitalistic Scam ?

“We need to stop asking what employees and individuals can do,” says Mental Health Writer Tanmoy Goswami. “People know what to do to take care of themselves, but unless they’re given the time and freedom without judgement, without the fear of losing the promotion or seen as less productive. … telling them all this is in effect shifting the responsibility for these terrible structures and systems onto the individual.”

Self-care has become to wellbeing what our personal carbon footprint is to climate change: a strategy for pushing responsibility on the individual, leaving companies and governments less accountable; a neoliberal advertisement.

And every new superficial fad is supported by a multibillion dollar industry ready to sell your very own shiny colourful brand of happiness. This is toxic positivity. And of course companies are lapping up this hedonistic form of wellbeing, because they need employees to be well, to perform, to produce, to be efficient, without having to rethink their entire operations.

“Most companies … the biggest reason they invest in employees’ mental health and wellness is because this will make them more productive,” Goswami says. “That is such self-defeating logic because it’s this productivity obsession that is making people ill… It’s like a snake eating its own tail.”

Goswami commented recently that two of the workplace skills which had seen the biggest jump in demand were anxiety management and resilience. In other words: torture employees and wreck their mental health, then train them to tolerate the torture.

So what should we do (while planning our revolution)? Perhaps we have to start by being willing to ask deeper questions and be curious about the answers.

Goswami says people know what needs to change. “Building a humane workplace is not rocket science,” he says, “with dignity, care. And fairness. One powerful tool is person centred policy making, putting the person at the centre of policymaking, not the organisation.”


This article originally appeared on the Rights Studio. The Rights Studio is a place for the study of human rights as an art form - and through the arts.