Modern society has a wellness obsession that is producing some distinctly unhealthy effects, claim the authors of new book.
André Spicer, a professor of organizational behaviour, and Carl Cederström, an organization theory expert, aren’t arguing against wellness per se, or sensible advice to eat healthily, exercise regularly, quit smoking and drink in moderation. Their beef is that wellness has become an ideology that is creeping into all areas of our lives in increasingly coercive ways.
In The Wellness Syndrome, Spicer and Cederström show how wellness promotion has extended well beyond its origins in the healthcare system. For example, the UK Office of National Statistics now measures national well-being to gauge policy impact. Museums funding is based partly on the basis of their contribution to wellbeing. In America, thousands of students are encouraged to sign ‘wellness contracts’, pledging to abstain from unhealthy pursuits (under the terms of one of these, students agree to abide by the “philosophy of the wellness community”).
But it is in the workplace, say Spicer and Cederström, where wellness promotion is most pervasive. Corporate wellbeing programmes are now commonplace in both Britain and America. In the US, half of companies with 50 or more employees offer such schemes. Some companies even offer employees treadmill workstations and appoint Chief Happiness Officers (while its true that majority of CHOs are confined to Silicone Valley, a major US restaurant chain now has one as does a large not-for-profit organization).
If some of this seems harmless, jokey even, Spicer and Cederström warn that it is not always as well-intentioned as it might seem. Businesses unsurprisingly are attracted by outcomes such as higher productivity. But corporate wellness programmed also draw employees deeper into the company culture leading to more uniform, less individual behaviours (the perfect conditions to produce “happily stupid athletes of productivity”, as the writer Steven Poole notes).
There is the real risk too, says the authors of The Wellness Syndrome, that people who refuse to comply with “wellness demands” become stigmatized by society. “We’re already seeing a shift from the unhealthy activity to the unhealthy individual,” they say – and from there it is only a short journey before you get to the undesirable individual.
Spicer and Cederström cite research showing that an excessive focus on personal wellness can make us more judgmental, prompting feelings of disgust towards people who are overweight or who smoke, or who otherwise fail to meet our own wellbeing standards.
And, they say, fixating on wellbeing has another detrimental effect: “Obsessively tracking our wellness, while continuously finding new avenues of self-enhancement leaves little room to live”. Or time to think – since this now dominant idea of wellness has minimal intellectual substance.
So, Spicer and Cederström conclude, if we don’t want to end up narcissistic, judgmental airheads we should resist “this moral imperative to optimize every aspect of our lives”. Or, to put it another way, there really is so much more to life.
Picture: Carl Cederström with the cover design for The Wellness Syndrome