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The Slippery Slope to Corporate Authoritarianism

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First they came for the biscuit-munchers, but I was not a biscuit-muncher, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the coffee-slurpers and late-lunchers, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the pie-eaters, but I was not a pie-eater, so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.*

Sometimes, I truly believe that the journalists at the Nation Media Group are merely toying with their readers; they can’t possibly take everything they write seriously. Some of it must be a joke, or a dare between rival desks to see who can get the most preposterous copy past the editors at deadline time. How else to explain Dorene Internicola’s piece on corporate exercise in Business Daily Africa?

Just because some US companies encourage their employees to hit the gym, that doesn’t mean that we should unthinkingly jump aboard the exercise bandwagon. So healthy employees don’t get sick often? Well, happy employees don’t go medieval on their bosses with a shank fashioned from a sharpened letter-opener. I’ve been avoiding organised fitness classes since I learned to forge doctors’ notes; if a company I worked for tried to get me to exercise for the good of “competition and team spirit,” my next appraisal would involve Kofi Annan and the negotiated release of the accounts department, because I do not take kindly to being told what to do with my body.

I am very concerned at the apathy that seems to come over people as their work increasingly encroaches on their private lives. Laptops and mobile phones mean that it is not virtually impossible to be “out of contact” in any meaningful sense of the word. The last thing anyone should want is for their employers to have a greater say over what they do once they are away from their desks. Some contracts already stipulate that even outside work, employees are considered to be  “brand ambassadors” and can hence be dismissed if they do anything outside work that could be construed as embarrassing for their employers. Giving our bosses a say over our health should strike most people as beyond the pale.

I am a smoker with unorthodox eating habits, an ambivalent attitude to organised exercise and downright hostility to gyms and fitness instructors. Have any of these factors ever affected my work? No. I believe that as a mentally competent adult, I have the right to take responsibility for my own health. Now, imagine if I had the misfortune to be recruited by a diet-and-exercise fanatic who insisted on a daily group yoga session every morning and a macrobiotic vegal lunch for all employees. Regardless of the quality of my work, the working relationship would inevitably break down.

The idea that bosses and managers should attempt to encourage and/or compel their employees to take up exercise or join a gym is asinine. We are adults, we know the dangers of not looking after ourselves. If we are not doing anything about it, that’s our responsibility. Unless the boss is paying all of our health insurance and medical bills, it is simply none of their business what we choose to do with our bodies. And if employees let the fitness business slide, what is next? All the smokers issued with nicotine patches, a ban on more than three helpings of red meat a week? The nightmare scenario is one where your boss calls you up on a Saturday night, asks about your sales reports and rings off with the words “Remember, no more than three drinks or you’ll be over the healthy daily amount!”

If employers would like healthier employees, that’s fine: subsidise gym memberships for those who want it, pay for healthy lunch options to be delivered to the office, and shorten our working day so we can train with amateur sports teams in the evenings if we so desire. But don’t penalise or take issue with anyone who does not partake of your generosity. Employees did not give up their right to free will and self-determination when they signed their employment contracts. Both management and wokers need to remember this; one should work to live, not live to work.

* With apologies to Martin Niemöller

[Image by Neon Cid]

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2 Comments

  1. Ssembonge says:

    Here’s a different point of view.

    In the US, employers rather than the state are responsible for providing health insurance to their employees. It is therefore necessary for them to curb healthcare costs by demanding employees to take good care of themselves.

    That said, a lot of individuals choose employment over self-employement because of the healthcare benefit. And the fact that the US healthcare systems is one of the most expensive in the world, the more the reason why companies need to be concerned about their healthcare costs.

    And yes, your state of health will affect your work performance. I have found that I am at my best the days after I’ve hit the threadmill. I sleep well and wake up energized. I have also seen this in others. And I think people who exercise are less likely to call in sick than those who don’t.

  2. Inari says:

    That’s all very well and good, but where is the cut-off point between personal freedom and employers “demanding that employees take good care of themselves?” Frankly, unless physical fitness is an essential job requirement.

    It’s one thing to refuse to hire smokers and to let recruits know that they will be drug-tested, as Kalamazoo do, both in the US and at their UK offices. It is quite another, however, to mandate exercise, especially if physical fitness is not a necessary requirement for the job being done.

    Companies are perfectly entitled to attempt to minimise their healthcare costs by selecting the healthiest employees, and they can even write health clauses into their terms of employment if they so desire. What they absolutely should not be able to do, however, is to start forcing employees into activities that do not have any bearing on their core job descriptions. An employment contract is not a certificate of ownership.

    As for the personal example you’ve given, after any exertion what I want most is a pint and a ciggie. But I’m at my most productive when sat on the couch. Not everyone feels or responds the same way. Personal anecdote does not a research paper make.

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