Employee health and wellness benefits in the United States have surged in popularity over the past half-century, with proponents arguing that when employers offer wellness benefits, everyone wins — workers are healthier and more productive, and employers ultimately save money. But there are real problems with this model. Government support for wellness benefits has outpaced their regulation, and there is inconsistent evidence as to whether these services and programs actually do what they promise. Companies in the benefits industry collect and transmit worker data in mysterious ways, while workers struggle to navigate an opaque and bewildering maze of benefits. Employers’ involvement in worker wellness raises a host of concerns about privacy, discrimination, punishment for non-participation, surveillance, and criminalization — all issues of intense importance to the US labor movement and workers in general.
In their primer Wellness Capitalism: Employee Health, the Benefits Maze, and Worker Control, Labor Futures senior researcher Tamara K. Nopper and research analyst Eve Zelickson explore how employee wellness has been promoted in the US through public policies and government support, and how this has led to a rapidly expanding, data-collecting industry. The result is what they call “wellness capitalism,” a model of public health involving the state, employers, and a wellness industry in which worker behaviors are monitored to improve society’s health.
By examining the histories and regulation of employee wellness programs and their realities in an increasingly digitized world, Nopper and Zelickson show how modern health and wellness benefits have produced a complex, privatized approach to public health. They argue that while new regulations protecting worker privacy and preventing discrimination are needed, regulation is not enough. To truly benefit workers, we need to question not only the value of increasingly invasive data collection in the name of wellness, but the promises of wellness capitalism writ large.
Suggested Citation: Tamara K. Nopper and Eve Zelickson. “Wellness Capitalism: Employee Health, the Benefits Maze, and Worker Control.” Data & Society Research Institute. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4444397
This report was produced with support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Data & Society’s Labor Futures team is supported, in part, by the Ford Foundation.