This piece was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Within the first weeks of my new grocery store job, I noticed that many of my colleagues were in pain. Roger, a longtime cashier, had a repetitive stress injury in his right elbow, the joint he had used for years to pull grocery items from the conveyer belt to his right across the digital scanner. Nina, also a cashier, woke up one day to a broken foot that she was sure was the result of years of standing behind the register. Ben, a stocker who had been lifting heavy objects at the store for more than a decade, told me that sometimes his feet swelled up so badly that he could barely walk.
Everyone just kept working despite their ailments. What choice did they have? Almost all of their suffering had been caused or exacerbated by our low-wage, manual labor jobs. Yet it was to those jobs that they had to return each day to survive.
Into this mix of illness, pain, and impossible choices came a corporate wellness program that I’ll call “Rocket Health.” I first learned about Rocket Health when I noticed that some of my colleagues wore the same smartwatch. They told me that they earned points by allowing the device to track how many steps they took in a day. There was also a Rocket Health app, which prompted users to participate in various “health challenges.” Employees could earn points by taking a daily walk or by learning new words from the dictionary. Points could be traded for gift certificates and even cash.
Download an app and get free money? What was the catch?
I did some research and learned that Rocket Health is owned by a global venture capital firm. The program is used in thousands of workplaces around the world.
Corporate wellness is nothing new. In the 1950s, such programs were first implemented to keep white-collar office workers productive on the job. But these days, the industry is increasingly targeting working-class people who have, as one recent article put it, “inconsistent access to health care, high stress levels, and few financial resources.” My co-workers and I fit the bill. What, I wondered, did Rocket Health have to offer us besides the possibility of earning a few extra dollars?
To find out, you first have to offer up your personal data. When I downloaded the Rocket Health app, I was asked to fill out a survey about everything from my diet to how much sleep and exercise I get in a typical week. The app then spit out an assessment of my general health. Since I had admitted to a weakness for occasional sugary drinks and fried foods, I was told that I needed to “challenge myself” to eat better. I was advised to “consider packing healthy snacks in advance” and to check out the frozen vegetable aisle in my supermarket.
Though the ailments from which my colleagues were suffering were linked to our physically demanding, poorly paid jobs, Rocket Health framed every potential health problem as a result of incorrect thinking and bad decision-making. The survey asked me to “think clearly” about my “lifestyle choices,” words that implied that I alone was responsible for whether I was sick or in pain.
Mental health is also something that Rocket Health treats as a wholly individual affair. In the section of the survey devoted to stress and depression, I was asked to check off a list of things that made me anxious. I marked items including “money,” “housing costs,” and “job stability.” What grocery store worker, I wondered, wouldn’t be anxious about all of those things? Just filling out the survey was a stressful reminder of the broader conditions that couldn’t be alleviated by wearing a smartwatch or by getting nutrition advice via text message.
Rocket Health also framed poor mental health as a result of personal decisions. To combat my stress, the app did not recommend that I try to improve my workplace or pay. Instead, it suggested that I “do something nice for someone” since “friends and family are good for your health.” I was also advised to “think of something I learned in a difficult situation.” An “upbeat attitude,” the app insisted, “can help you cope with life’s twists and turns.” I tried to think of something I could learn from a job that left me dazed from hours of repetition and too worn out to do much but sleep during my off hours. I was stumped.
Perhaps these apps will encourage some people to improve nutrition and turn them on to the benefits of exercise. What’s wrong with that? The problem is that treating serious social problems as outcomes of a lack of individual effort is particularly pernicious among a class of workers who primarily have their bodies to sell. As grocery store staff, we don’t get paid unless we can perform physical tasks–the same tasks that wear out our muscles, joints, and bones over time and that will inevitably make us ineligible for the only kind of employment that most of us have ever had.
The Rocket Health program’s primary function, then, is to provide the illusion of choice to workers who have no control over the conditions of their labor or to what might become of them after they are no longer useful to employers. As manual laborers, our working days are numbered no matter our “lifestyle choices.” That is what it means to sell your body for wages.
Everyone—from workers to bosses—understands this. The Rocket Health website even advertises itself as a way for employers to “do more work with less people.” Employers need bodies—but not too many. This is a chilling reality for those of us who live in fear of the day when our muscles seize up, when our bones finally break, or when our illnesses become too much to bear.
In the meantime, we play the corporate wellness game. Earning points on an app is the only option many of us have to try to hang on a bit longer in the space where we can still perform the labor that will eventually make our continued employment impossible.
Corporate wellness is full of such contradictions. Though everyone knows that manual laborers can’t work forever, a kind of endless labor is exactly what Rocket Health aims to make possible. One of my colleagues recently told me that he had earned over 60,000 points on the app—a major feat. He must have spent months responding to alerts, allowing the smart watch to track his every step, and participating in health challenges. His body, in a sense, never left the store. “What are you going to do with the money?” I asked. My colleague said he was going to buy something nice for his wife—a gift he would not have been able to afford otherwise.
By participating in a corporate wellness, my fellow grocery store worker was able to follow a piece of advice offered by the program: do something nice for someone. But it turned out that what he really needed all along was not prodding from an app to get healthier. He needed the money.