Are Your Best Intentions Causing Harm?

In this episode, Eric James discusses identity, work, and wellness and the role communication plays in workplace health/lifestyle promotion and managerial control.

Airdate: October 27, 2021

Season 2 Episode 9 | 47 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.750] – Liz Fraley 

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions, I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she’s our interviewer. And welcome to Dr. Eric James, today’s guest in Room 42.

[00:00:24.470] – Liz Fraley 

Eric James has always been good at asking questions, often seeing multiple sides to complex issues. He’s an associate professor of the Communications Studies Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He researches issues relating to workplace wellness, organizational identity, and control. He asks questions about the consequences of the ever-present creeping arm of managerial control.

[00:00:49.070] – Liz Fraley 

He’s been published in a variety of outlets, including the Journal of Applied Communication Research and Management Communication Quarterly, and had a TED Talk just last month. Certainly, it’s a few weeks ago. You can find the link on the event page. And today he’s here to help us start answering the question, “Are your best intentions causing harm?” Welcome.

[00:01:10.310] – Eric James

Thanks so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to this.

[00:01:13.010] – Liz Fraley 

So glad you’re here.

[00:01:14.930] – Janice Summers

Yes. We’re very glad to have you here. It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking about the topic, and it’s a very challenging thing when you talk about workplace wellness and communication and all the other multifaceted aspects of that, and how that impacts the workplace. What made you choose this area? This is a very sensitive area, right?

[00:01:42.410] – Eric James

It is. Just as Liz said in the intro, I ask a lot of questions. I don’t know if I have the answers, but when I started graduate school and I started reading about control and everything that we do for work, I was really just drawn to how pervasive work is in our lives.

[00:02:03.710] – Eric James

And I started digging a little bit deeper, and I read some work by one of my collaborators and really great researcher, Heather Zoller. And she had an article about working out as this managerialist form of control. That sounds interesting. At the time, I wasn’t really into fitness or gyms, but I thought it was very interesting approach.

[00:02:26.750] – Eric James

So I started reading it, and I just became fascinated with this, that a manager could basically prescribe fitness for employees. And I just started to take a step back and wonder, is that fair? I thought we were at work to produce widgets for whatever the company needs. So why would we be then making our employees conform to a particular, perhaps idealized standard of health?

[00:02:53.390] – Eric James

From there, all sorts of questions came out. And Heather Zoller has done a great job at trying to answer some of those. But as that ever-creeping arm of managerial control continues to reach out, there’s other questions and more issues of control that we must look at and must ask.

[00:03:10.850] – Janice Summers

How is this impacting the employees? There’s a lot to this. Is it overreach for companies to implement wellness programs?

[00:03:25.970] – Eric James

That’s a good question. So, where do we get most of our health information? Because in the United States we don’t necessarily have a standardized health program that our government regulates and gives us information that makes it fair and easy for everyone to access. We don’t have that. It’s unfortunate, but we don’t. So if we are spending most of our awake time at work, should the employer give us information about health?

[00:03:51.830] – Eric James

I see that perspective. But then who’s to say that the manager or the corporate leaders, whoever they are, are going to give us the most universal standards or the most individualistic approaches to health versus a panacea, a one size fits all approach?

[00:04:08.870] – Eric James

If we’re talking about seemingly innocuous things like, “Let’s just talk about health, and there’s this approach, and there’s this approach. There’s this approach to nutrition and this approach.” I think that that’s a nice, all-encompassing way to present health information. But then again, I just always wonder, what is the incentive for the employer to do this? And can the employee ever trust someone who inherently has a power position over that employee? So it’s very hard for that person in a lower position to resist that information.

[00:04:46.070] – Janice Summers

Because there’s biases there from the employer’s perspective.

[00:04:51.830] – Eric James

There has to be.

[00:04:52.910] – Janice Summers

They have motivations. Healthy employees, better performers, lower insurance, experience.

[00:05:00.950] – Eric James

It’s interesting. They do have a bias, we can’t deny that. Everyone has a particular bias. But when I talk to leaders about this, “Why are you implementing this particular program?” And I look at some of the more extreme forms of workplace health promotion.

[00:05:15.770] – Eric James

So we’re talking about folks that are encouraging/mandating. It just depends on if you look at the explicit norms or the implicit norms, which we can talk about in just a minute, to do perhaps a more extreme workout, like CrossFit at the workplace, or eat a particular diet that the company has sponsored or wellness programs. They’ve even evolved into getting more financial information, like how employees should budget their paychecks. So it becomes all-encompassing.

[00:05:44.450] – Eric James

When I talk to these leaders about, “Hey, what’s your motivation behind this?” They say “Altruistic. I’m doing this for my employees. I love them. I care about them.” And yes, I’ll follow you to that point. But at the same time, why would you be providing disincentives if they don’t work out? Why would you be saying that they can’t have maybe a soda pop on the shop floor? That they’ll be fired if they drink or eat candy on the shop floor. So it’s like they care, but they’re kind of carrying around a big stick as well.

[00:06:16.970] – Eric James

It’s like, “Okay. I’ll do this for you.”

[00:06:21.290] – Janice Summers

That kind of takes the altruism out of it.

[00:06:23.450] – Eric James

It does. But yet they’re given accolades. These companies that do have so-called healthy workplaces, they’re often lauded in the literature, at least in terms of functionalist perspectives, like folks that want to tweak particular parts of organizational culture to increase efficiency, productivity, lower insurance premiums.

[00:06:44.510] – Eric James

So they’re often given awards about the potential return on investment, the ROI. But if you really do start digging into the data, it’s very limited. It doesn’t measure. As Zoller has said in the past, it’s very hard to measure the quality of a workplace health program. What are you really calculating when you throw out these ROI numbers? And if you really do start digging around, you realize that a lot of them are not based off of substantive fact.

[00:07:12.710] – Janice Summers

What are the rewards that these employers are getting out of doing these? It sounds like the data shows that it really doesn’t provide much benefit.

[00:07:26.390] – Eric James

It’s interesting. We’re in this postmodern world where truth doesn’t necessarily matter to a lot of folks, and that’s really unfortunate. But a lot of folks that do— I often call these things like airport books. When you go in an airport and you look at the bookstore, there’s all these business guru books and management guru stuff. And it’s all about a quick fix, enhancing teamwork and innovation all these buzzwords that really don’t mean a whole lot.

[00:07:54.230] – Eric James

And workplace wellness has become another variable that folks think they can simply tweak a small little thing and it is going to provide so many outstanding outcomes. And the reality of it is they don’t want to look at the data that suggests that it’s not easy to do, it’s very complicated.

[00:08:10.970] – Eric James

Nutrition and health are very personal issues. And while we are seeing a bit of a change in this kind of cultural zeitgeist and what’s happening right now with COVID, privacy laws are important. I don’t necessarily want to share my health history with my employer, and I don’t really want to necessarily be encouraged to eat a diet that perhaps goes against maybe a cultural value that I grew up with.

[00:08:34.490] – Eric James

So these types of questions that are so important are often glossed over by the employers. Instead, they fixate on the potential insurance premium deductions. There’s actually incentives with our government with tax credits for having particularly healthy workers.

[00:08:51.710] – Eric James

It started with employee assistance programs with folks wanting their employers to stop smoking, to stop drinking, to cope with stress in better, more healthy ways. But if you go back to that, it’s like, “Where is your major source of stress?” Work. It’s like what comes first, chicken or the egg? So it’s just been a kind of a band-aid approach. We don’t want to look too far into it, we don’t want to go too deep, because then you realize that work is causing many of these problems that we’re trying to put a band-aid on to fix.

[00:09:24.570] – Janice Summers

So they’re trying to solve it with the health and wellness programs when it’s probably more of a managerial issue that’s causing stress.

[00:09:36.030] – Eric James

Management, or just work in general. We have such a fixation on work in our country, across the world really. But honestly, I’d say that the American work ethic is based on Max Weber’s understanding of the protestant ethic, that if we do a good day’s work, we’ll be rewarded with fruits for our family. And a lot of that still exists; that work is important, we must do it.

[00:09:59.550] – Eric James

I’m not necessarily disagreeing with that. I think that we need to have some sort of purpose in life, and that can be raising a family, or it can be also going to work, or skiing, or doing whatever we enjoy doing and also paying the bills, of course.

[00:10:14.130] – Eric James

But then you start thinking about “Where does it end?” If I go to work, I get this information, I have a stressful day at work and then I come home. I get a few emails, I’m still working, and then at night I’m having a hard time sleeping because I’m thinking about my day or about my upcoming day. It’s like I can’t even escape in my dreams. Like we said earlier, it’s an all-encompassing way of life these days.

[00:10:40.110] – Eric James

One of our big-name scholars in organizational communication and communication in general, Stanley Deetz, who is [Professor] Emeritus at UC Boulder, and he talks about this idea of the corporate colonization, that all of these decisions that we make in life, are often relegated because of work.

[00:11:02.190] – Eric James

How often do we move to a new place just for the sake of a new adventure or fun? But we do move because of work. We got transferred. “Dad got transferred, we’re now going to move to Milwaukee. Maybe not the best schools, but this is what we need to do for our family.” I’ve often teased that with workplace wellness, it becomes almost like the corporate colon: It’s their body, too, they’re now extending this to telling us what to eat and telling us how to be more productive and to monitor our blood sugar levels. Based on—

[00:11:33.690] – Janice Summers

They’ve advanced their reach from the eight hour day into every aspect of our life. I imagine that having those wellness programs, you’re always thinking about this and you’re attached to work because that’s what you do. In exchange for your time, you get money, which pays the bills, which allows you to have a place to live and all of that and some comfort.

[00:11:59.010] – Janice Summers

But having wellness programs that are overreaching and aggressive reaches into your conscience when you’re trying to decide, what am I having for dinner? What am I feeding my family for dinner? How much sleep am I getting? Am I going to the gym enough? Am I going for a run? Whatever the fitness… Is my Fitbit tracker… Am I hitting the numbers that I have to hit in order to be on the reward board so that I get recognized in my job as a good employee because I’m getting my steps in?

[00:12:31.770] – Janice Summers

You know what I’m saying?

[00:12:32.910] – Eric James

You are absolutely right.

[00:12:36.210] – Janice Summers

It seems like doing these things can put employees into a distress mode of constant pressure from the employer.

[00:12:48.630] – Eric James

A lot of them have said that they do not feel this pressure. It’s kind of counterintuitive. But here’s the thing, all those things that you are talking about have creeped into our lives and we take them for granted now. It becomes the assumption.

[00:13:06.210] – Eric James

A lot of these employees may not necessarily understand that “Oh, my workplace gave me a recommendation that I shouldn’t eat any more potatoes”— this is a true story based on my research—”and that potatoes are bad for us for a variety of reasons”— I’m using scare quotes here based on a particular nutritional doctrine that this organization prescribed— “but what we can do instead is to perhaps make some rice cauliflower with our dinner.”

[00:13:35.070] – Eric James

I’m not going to argue that rice cauliflower is probably better for us than potatoes. But then when we start feeding that to your kiddos and you start really taking in this particular discourse without question, it does leave me with an uneasy feeling, because now that child is consuming this nutritional program that the organization, that the corporation has basically prescribed to their employees.

[00:13:57.810] – Eric James

In the 1800s we had company towns where the coal miners would basically live in tent cities or small little houses and get paid in company dollars.

[00:14:07.530] – Janice Summers

That they’d have to go shop at the company store.

[00:14:09.210] – Eric James

Company store. That song ” I sold my soul…” 

[00:14:12.630] – Janice Summers

“To the company store.” This is true.

[00:14:15.390] – Eric James

But now it’s not as explicit as that, but it’s like this neo-normative form of control where scholars like Peter Fleming (author of The Mythology of Work) have talked about how this becomes like… Things that are typically outside of work now are becoming part of work.

[00:14:32.550] – Eric James

So think about the idea of play, like fun and play. That’s a new buzzword in organizational life, that we want to have fun while we work, we want you to be your true authentic selves as long as that aligns with the company values. So you don’t want someone who’s going to be a rebel to come in and buck the system. But you want someone to be themselves as long as it aligns with the company value.

[00:14:54.090] – Janice Summers

As long as it conforms.

[00:14:54.090] – Eric James

As long as it conforms, right.

[00:14:58.350] – Janice Summers

Be yourself inside this conformant box.

[00:15:02.310] – Eric James


[00:15:03.030] – Liz Fraley 

So I was thinking the rice cauliflower is all well and good unless your grocery store nearest to your house is a gas station that doesn’t carry that.

[00:15:12.390] – Janice Summers

That’s the thing we need to talk about, is people… We’re not all on equal playing fields.

[00:15:18.990] – Eric James

Exactly. That’s the biggest issue for me, is that it seems fine to give all your employees a Fitbit and say, “Hey, walk around and make a game of it.” And “Hey, here’s some nutritional information” that follows this maybe paleolithic diet or a zone diet. And it works, you’re going to lose pounds. But then you start thinking about, “If I start buying these products, grass-fed beef is pretty expensive. Meat in general is pretty expensive. And I’ve only been getting paid X amount of dollars that’s going to make it a little bit more challenging.”

[00:15:51.630] – Janice Summers

And what if you’re vegan?

[00:15:52.890] – Eric James

What if you’re vegan? Or what if you grow up in a culture where a staple is something like rice and beans, and then you show up for Thanksgiving or for whatever holiday you’re celebrating and you’re like, “Boss says, I can’t eat that anymore. Sorry, folks.”

[00:16:10.650] – Eric James

That’s taking it maybe a little bit too far. But at the same time, you can see how these things would just cause some incongruence in our lives about the choices that we’re making. And that employer is not thinking that there are food deserts out there and that shopping at the organic stores versus the cheaper grocery stores is an option for people when they’re simply not giving those higher paychecks to many of the employees that are being fed this nutrition information.

[00:16:40.890] – Janice Summers

Are they thinking of the exclusionary practice? Like how a lot of these programs are very exclusionary?

[00:16:48.990] – Eric James

I don’t think that’s the first thing that comes to mind, and I really think that’s unfortunate because… I was in a meeting doing some research for my dissertation, and this company was really big into fitness for their employees. They were just evangelical about it. Part of it was because their brand probably depended on them being a fitness culture. But at the same time, when I was observing this meeting, I was frantically taking notes about everything that I was hearing and just trying not to just blurt out like, “What in the heck are you guys doing?”

[00:17:20.430] – Eric James

The manager said with a straight face. “All right, folks, we’re going to do something a little bit more aggressive here. Every time that we see someone taking the elevator to get to the second or third floor, you’re going to get a fine. You’re going to go in this swear jar. You’ll have to pay a fine for taking the elevator. We want you taking the steps.”

[00:17:35.850] – Eric James

And it was really interesting. At this organization, they would have actually a whiteboard at the top of the steps where you’re supposed to time how quickly you got from the bottom floor to the top. And then I was just standing around. And there were some other folks that were kind of laughing and chuckling, but I honestly sensed some kind of nervous laughter. What if someone has a disability or some sort of… gosh, there are times in the day where you just don’t feel like taking the stairs for a variety of reasons.

[00:18:02.130] – Eric James

What kind of a culture is that going to be when you’re surveilling who takes the stairs? A preferred employee versus an employee who chooses to take, or doesn’t even choose but just has to take the elevator. So as I was writing this down, the manager looked at me like, “What? What’s wrong with that?” Just simply missing how exclusive that practice was and what some of those consequences might have been.

[00:18:26.550] – Janice Summers

Because what does that do to the employees in the environment? When you’ve gone in and consulted with companies, have you gotten a chance to have candid interviews with employees? How do you track that?

[00:18:42.090] – Eric James

Absolutely. It’s interesting because with any kind of exclusive practice it creates in-groups and out-groups. It’s just a social identity theory of self-categorization. And the in-group folks were evangelical about this. I like to call them the Homers of the organization. “Yes, sir. Anything you want, yes, I’ll do it.” And they loved it. And they saw results, they got fit. They just really were enamored by it and were all in, it seemed like.

[00:19:10.170] – Eric James

But then you find some that are in the middle of the road that said, “It was kind of weird that we are all required to do this workout, but they didn’t do any injury screening.” They would say that they’re a personal trainer. And that just struck me as a little bit odd, that you can’t necessarily prescribe this for everyone without knowing their individual health history.

[00:19:28.770] – Eric James

And then some on the other end, the resistors, maybe had worked for the organization for 20, 30 years, have had children, have had life. Life happens. And maybe their bodies weren’t exactly idealized in the modern sense, or even what they preferred, but just life happens.

[00:19:47.070] – Eric James

So when they are being told to eat a particular way, to change their diet, to work out a particular way, many of them told me they hate it. They hate working there. They didn’t feel comfortable eating in front of other employees. They’re eating in their cars, they’re eating at their desks.

[00:19:59.430] – Janice Summers

They’re constantly judged.

[00:20:01.830] – Eric James

Constantly judged. They self-categorize themselves as baddies. It’s their word. And that’s so unfortunate because you can still be healthy choosing your own path. And in that particular case, I think that research was really fruitful in that we saw that resistance, those folks that were able to voice— it was hard for them to talk to me because these are very personal issues.

[00:20:24.510] – Eric James

I then brought those issues up to the C-suite, and I remember very vividly that conversation. I was talking to this HR executive, and I said, “Are you worried that these practices might at some point ostracize particular employees? Because I have heard from some that do feel like this has changed the workplace. It is quite different.” And I remember exactly what he said and the way which he said it, he said, “Is that true, or is that just how they feel?”

[00:20:56.670] – Eric James

And I thought that was a really telling perspective because, in organizational communication, we have this thing about bounded emotionality. There’s a particular way for us to privilege more masculine ways of thinking, stereotypically masculine ways of thinking in leadership, which is more logic and truth, and really taking emotion and feeling and putting that off to the side as not as valuable as logic or truth.

[00:21:23.310] – Eric James

But that comment by him just really showed me that he didn’t really care about that group that might have felt ostracized because in his mind, they were doing a good thing. And he used that word “altruism” so much in that conversation. So just a complete disconnect altogether.

[00:21:42.690] – Janice Summers

That’s sometimes the drum that they beat to hide behind. And they’re thinking that the data points in fitness relate to health, but what they don’t understand is that does not indicate health. Fitness does not indicate health. Period.

[00:22:01.890] – Eric James

It’s fascinating, because… I love studying communication because we show the power of language, the power of words. By just naming something we can give it a particular judgment or evaluation. So what CrossFit has done in the past, CrossFit is an extreme workout program, they were kind of smart in more of a sinister way because they defined health.

[00:22:25.950] – Eric James

So they said that you’re sick, you’re unwell if you are eating carbs and you’re only working out by running or something, and that if you wanted to eat healthy, then you’re the elite athlete that does not eat any carbs, who brags about not having sushi in years and is able to excel in a variety of sports. So if you take that definition from an exercise or lifestyle ideology and incorporate that into the workplace, you run into a whole bunch of problems.

[00:23:00.570] – Janice Summers

And the thing is, they’re defining health and they’re not doctors.

[00:23:03.690] – Eric James

No, absolutely not. It’s so hard for even doctors to tell us what is healthy or what should we do in this way or that way because it’s individual. It comes down to the person. It comes down to your genetics. Sure, it comes down to your nutritional choices and your activity, absolutely. But it’s a lot of different factors that the organization does not simply have access to. They focus on widgets, they don’t focus on the human body.

[00:23:36.550] – Janice Summers

If these companies discover that true health is a lot of tests that doctors run, and they study you over a period of time to find out how your health is through various modes. There’s a lot of things they test to measure on an individual basis. Heaven help us, when companies figure out that that’s true health, because then are they going to try to overreach into that?

[00:24:01.150] – Eric James

I worry about this. As we talked about earlier, the neo-normative control, it seems to be encompassing everything. There’s a scholar in the UK, Karen Dale, who wonders about that movie Limitless, where you take some sort of a pill and your body can now do things it hadn’t done before. So what’s to say that a particular organization is not going to say, “Hey, you know what, you should probably take some of these pills as well, because it’s going to enhance your productivity during the day.”

[00:24:31.570] – Eric James

And there is research that suggests that some doctors, in fact, who are working long double shifts, who are lacking sleep, have taken amphetamines to help stay awake. So I do really worry about what’s next. I would say that prescribing CrossFit and that ideology to your employees is a bit far. It’s pretty extreme, but I really do wonder about the future of work and how much permission we’re going to allow our employers to have over us.

[00:25:09.410] – Janice Summers

So what does one do? That’s the thing. It’s like you get a job as a technical writer at a company, I’m there to do a technical writing job. I’m not there to go run a marathon. I’m not there to be the next CrossFit star. I’m there to do my job, and I’m good at my job.

[00:25:29.750] – Eric James

Then you start walking around, you see on the walls all the good employees who have had these fitness feats, as you were saying earlier, Janice, about the ideal employees and their scores for fitness and the cool employees that are eating together with the senior leadership because they all worked out together. And you’re just there to do your job, you’re a technical writer. But I think you would feel a little bit excluded because you weren’t part of that club, that you weren’t part of the group that was…

[00:26:01.670] – Eric James

For lack of better terms, it becomes a good old boys club. And, yes, it is very gendered as well, because a lot of these fitness programs do… CrossFit says it caters to everyone, but when you really start digging down, it does privilege particular ideals, and it caters to a particular class. It’s very expensive usually. And to follow a paleo diet is not only destructive for the environment if you’re eating a lot of protein, but at the same time, it’s not appropriate for everyone.

[00:26:34.970] – Liz Fraley 

It feels like a socially acceptable way to be completely anti-diverse, anti-inclusive, and end up with a whole lot of people who all look like you.

[00:26:48.410] – Eric James

That’s a great point. These companies will say that they have commitments to diversity and commitments to not being a homogeneous, one-size person at the organization, but that we want a variety of perspectives, but… Again, I asked someone during my interviews with them, I said, “You can’t necessarily discriminate against people that aren’t going to follow these ideals and maybe don’t take fitness as seriously as other folks.” And he kind of laughed and said, “We can’t?”

[00:27:20.810] – Liz Fraley 

Not a protected class.

[00:27:22.970] – Eric James

So he was joking about it like he would never admit that they fire or only hire fit-looking people. But at the same time, we kind of use that term cultural fit as like this really weird—

[00:27:40.070] – Janice Summers

That’s a catchphrase.

[00:27:40.070] – Eric James

Nebulous phrase that might actually lead to more discrimination than doing good. Because these folks that are working out, if you do CrossFit, you have an idealized body. It’s very small body fat percentage, it looks a particular way. In my other research, I talk about how your body becomes almost like a resume. Like if you have your vitae, your resume on paper, but doesn’t your body also communicate your particular values? And we can’t really hide our bodies. It’s unfortunate that we have to go in for our interviews, and people will make those judgments.

[00:28:19.370] – Janice Summers

Yeah, they do. And oftentimes those judgments are absolutely wrong. And that CrossFit person, you can’t see their arteries hardening from all the food that they’re eating in that diet.

[00:28:31.070] – Liz Fraley 

Some people drop dead anyway.

[00:28:32.510] – Janice Summers

You can’t see all those hardening arteries and the long-term effects of all of that. But there’s got to be a boundary, though. There’s got to be a good way to communicate this and to live healthy, to promote health in a company. There’s got to be-

[00:28:52.850] – Eric James


[00:28:54.650] – Janice Summers

So how would you do that? How would you communicate that and be inclusive?

[00:28:59.330] – Eric James

It’s a good question. Again, I ask this question, too, and there are some folks within communication, specifically health communication, that talk about this from more participatory, democratic models decision-making in the organization. I’m of the belief that that’s kind of a utopia, but we can hope to get there at some point, maybe. I’m crossing my fingers.

[00:29:20.990] – Eric James

But we need to have folks that are on the floor that maybe don’t have that direct power over subordinates to help in the process, to feel comfortable enough to be part of the co-constructors of these particular health messages, understanding that you cannot just have this one size fits all, but it has to be co-created, and it has to be individualistic, and it certainly cannot be governed by a big stick where there’s these disincentives to work out.

[00:29:56.210] – Eric James

When we think about where these programs started, we think about employee assistance programs to cope with stress, to curb tobacco and alcohol use, because that’s how a lot of folks turn to cope. I see that as good. All this started with occupational safety and health awareness, and how we can stop basically being killed at our jobs and reduce injuries.

[00:30:25.070] – Eric James

We’ve come a long way since one of the number one ways to die in America was from our jobs, to trying to get people to be really happy, to have longevity. But it’s taken on a much more nefarious tone, and we need to step back from it and realize that you cannot have 100 percent participation in everything. While you may have 90 percent participation, and that may seem good, I’m very concerned about that 10 percent. Those are the folks that are in the margins so we may not hear from.

[00:30:56.750] – Eric James

So I might want to cater to those folks and know that my role as an employer does have a boundary. I think we do need to have some regulation there that we can’t be fired because of the way that our body looks or because of the ways that we choose to work out, or if I have a Coke on the shop floor.

[00:31:19.550] – Janice Summers

It’s interesting because, I’m listening and I’m thinking at the same time, a lot of times some of these things come from the C-suite. Or you have somebody who’s type A super-aggressive, into fitness, who’s in a position of power in the company, who’s dictating it down and coloring it however they want. That’s usually how these things come about, yes?

[00:31:41.990] – Eric James

Absolutely. It’s top-down.

[00:31:44.330] – Janice Summers

So it’s interesting. Kind of go with me here. So what if they took this and they took a lesson out of the skill in communication and they say, “I’ve got this product,” the executive who wants this thing, “but I’ve got this audience, and these two things are far apart, so I’ll include my audience before I design a program and implement it, and communicate that I will design it with my customer in mind.”

[00:32:14.690] – Janice Summers

“My customer in that situation is the entire spectrum of my employee base, and I’ll have them involved so that I’ll have a stronger program and a more inclusive program.”

[00:32:29.450] – Liz Fraley 

Interesting idea.

[00:32:29.450] – Janice Summers

Because if I come from a perspective of communication and organization or just from the traditional tech comm, we know that if we communicate to our base, they understand better, and that’s our job in tech comm, is to make complex things easy to understand and for people to adopt and implement. And in order to do that, we need to understand our customer base and we have to understand the complexity of the product, like this executive, and then we know how to negotiate that and design a program around that to communicate.

[00:33:07.310] – Eric James

I love that idea. It’s like you’re going back to ancient Greece. Aristotle said this. “Know your audience, know who you’re talking to.” It’s so cyclical that we forget just the basics. If you’re the CEO, you have a very different lifestyle than many of your employees. So during an interview, could you ask questions to find out more about what they want in their employer? Do they even want workplace wellness? And if they could have workplace wellness, what would it look like? Could we have some sort of a process in place to get to know what those needs are and if there is a need for it.

[00:33:42.350] – Eric James

Clearly, we have a structural problem in the United States about health and access to health information. And even recently, it’s not just the marginalized communities that have this distrust in our doctors and our medical advice, a lot of folks now are having this distrust. So I think it— not to just bring everything back to COVID-19, but I do think this is an interesting rupture point in the way that we think about health and wellness, and I hope that we can just really shut up for a minute and listen to our employees and know where they’re coming from and what they want and hopefully making a climate, this kind of culture that encourages participation, encourages decision-making processes across the board, not just from the top down.

[00:34:28.790] – Janice Summers

And from an organizational perspective, from that org psychology mentality, we know that a body as a whole is stronger when we have more diversity and inclusion. We know this. So you can’t have hyper-aggressive people through the whole company because that doesn’t work. You have some that are aggressive, some that are not, you have some that are very introverted and some that are extroverted. This symphony creates a stronger organization, a stronger body, as it were.

[00:35:05.130] – Eric James

But again, it’s not just that. It does completely, and that would help the bottom line for many of these organizations because if you’re just having that evangelical fitness group, those are like-minded ideas that are going to come from those folks. But don’t you want the other ideas that are perhaps even more creative? Or we can direct initiatives to bring their ideas into our potential customers and clients? I would argue absolutely.

[00:35:32.910] – Eric James

I hate to bring things back to the business case, but if our organizations are simply driven by the bottom line— and I would argue that they are, at least not-for-profits— that there is a way for us to kind of… Again, I’m skeptical and hesitant to do this, but there is a way to look at it from that business case, that there are some actual opportunities that are being missed right now by homogenizing our workforce.

[00:35:55.550] – Liz Fraley 


[00:35:56.310] – Janice Summers

Oh, no. There’s valid reason that you want to have a healthy work environment, both emotionally, physically, everything. You want that to be healthy. But in order to create that, you can’t be so homogeneous with just one program and super aggressive and include only the cool kids and be hyper-competitive. Because that’s non-inclusive.

[00:36:19.700] – Liz Fraley 

Have access to power.

[00:36:20.790] – Janice Summers

Yeah. That’s non-inclusive. What eventually happens is if you’re building too much in one thing, then you will crumble. Eventually, you will crumble. And if you want sustainability over a long period of time, you have to have inclusion. So you have to have a program that is diverse and includes a broad spectrum, because not everybody is going to fit into that one spectrum. And you can’t judge health on physical appearance. You cannot.

[00:36:58.830] – Eric James

But we shouldn’t judge health. No one should judge health other than if you want to yourself. You’re in control of your body to a certain extent, genetics definitely play a role, but it’s definitely not in the purview of my manager. Even when someone comments on appearance in the workplace, sometimes I’m taken back a bit by someone commenting on just my body because it’s a personal thing, and when you’re starting to be, not only…

[00:37:25.050] – Eric James

Those are seemingly innocuous comments like, “You look tired today. I see some bags under your eyes. Are you okay?” Okay. I’ll let that go. But when it’s like, “How’s the working out going? How’s the workout today? Did you make your way to the gym yet? Which class you’re going to go to?” You’re hearing that everywhere. If I don’t feel very good, I just turned 40, and I’m really feeling the aches and pains of my body, I don’t have cartilage in my knees, my shoulder hurts, I not going to work out today.

[00:37:49.110] – Eric James

So I don’t think I should be judged for that because you don’t know everything that I’ve been through. You don’t know there’s no cartilage in my knees, and I can’t bend down very well right now, so it just creates this in-group, out-group bias where organizations are really thinking about ways to control employees’ bodies and not necessarily the task at hand.

[00:38:15.850] – Liz Fraley 

It’s a veneer, not so much a real concern.

[00:38:21.130] – Eric James

Some folks in the UK, Peter Bloom, [Professor of Management at] Essex, and Timothy Butcher in Tasmania (Professor of Organization Studies), we’re working on a project together that we’re really thinking from a theoretical perspective, the capital that we have with our bodies. And it’s almost to the extent of those obstacle races of Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, those types of things— do you know that those folks actually run through live electricity?

[00:38:52.390] – Eric James

They run through electricity. They cause their bodies pain. They jump into freezing water, they crawl through barbed wire. So their body, to some extent, is being bruised, is being battered. But it’s that pain, other scholars have talked about this, too, that that pain becomes like a battle scar that you want to show that you’ve endured it, that you can do that. And for some reason, that’s become this proxy for success or for a high-quality candidate.

[00:39:26.770] – Eric James

This isn’t just speculation. There’s a CEO who has a video out from Skullcandy. It’s one of the headphone manufacturers in Park City, Utah, and he said on record that he uses CrossFit as a great proxy to see who would succeed in his company.

[00:39:48.110] – Eric James

Okay, maybe. But maybe a CrossFitter would use your headphones. And I know I’m knocking a lot on CrossFit. CrossFit does have some commitments to health and fitness that I think that a lot of people do get some benefit out of. Absolutely. And I’m really inspired by their new leadership. Greg Glassman has gone away, thank goodness, and Eric Roza is up in Boulder and doing some really great things and trying to make it more inclusive.

[00:40:13.670] – Eric James

And a paleo diet, as much as I knock it, it does work for a lot of people, and I know they’re not as focused on meat proteins and ways to use more renewable sources and vegetables. So I want to be fair if that is your preferred nutritional program or your preferred way to work out. I don’t want to knock that too hard.

[00:40:31.790] – Eric James

What I’m saying is that should be your choice. That should be your sense of agency. And the body capital thing is just that I think oftentimes we don’t work out… in certain cases, I shouldn’t say everyone. But let’s take a hypothetical example, that we might work out to build our body, to sculpt our body in a particular way that society deems exceptional, not just professional anymore.

[00:40:53.330] – Eric James

The professional body is one thing ,but it’s changing. Now we need to stand out. We need to be exceptional. And the exceptional person brags about not having, in this particular organization I’m working with, having sushi in 10 years. And to me, I’m like, “I love sushi. I don’t know how I could give that up. In fact, it sounds really good for lunch today.”

[00:41:13.370] – Eric James

I think that sometimes we make those sacrifices and we’re only on this earth for a short amount of time, and I think that when we start really using that extreme discipline that we’re giving in to that managerialist control, that discourse that says, I’ll do everything for my job.

[00:41:30.470] – Janice Summers

And it comes back to that again. It’s like, what does that have to do with me making widgets?

[00:41:36.530] – Eric James

Exactly. Are you going to make them faster?

[00:41:36.530] – Janice Summers

I’m hired to make widgets, and I’m doing a great job making widgets. Great. I don’t think it’s fair for managers to overreach and dictate to me and my family. What if I’ve got children that I’m raising? That’s creeping into their lives too.

[00:41:58.490] – Eric James

It really is. In the turn of the century, we looked at scientific management theory, so it’s like one best way to do a job. And to some extent, we still have that. I can understand, like, “Hey, there’s a more efficient way to do something. Let me show you how to do that.” Okay. I’ll buy that. But what if you start saying that there’s a more efficient way to even control your body, to put particular nutrients in there that’s going to make you more alert and more productive on the work floor?

[00:42:23.750] – Eric James

I struggle with that because evolution takes a very long time to happen. We are not faster. I’ll argue this, the human body is not different than it was 200 years ago. You may say, “Well, Eric, don’t we run the four-minute mile a lot quicker than we used to?” And I’d say we are faster. We see records being broken in Olympics and things like this. But is it really that the body is getting stronger and faster, or do we have a more nuanced understanding of efficient movements, or ways to train, or technology, or the shoes that we wear?

[00:42:57.110] – Eric James

And I argue it’s the latter. It’s the technology that has changed. The human body is going to take hundreds of thousands of years for us to evolve if we even do with what’s going on right now. So for us to think that we can keep improving continuously, it’s missing the whole point that work is a means to survive, and there needs to be particular borders and a perimeter that’s clearly defined around that organizational structure.

[00:43:23.990] – Janice Summers

And I think that’s the important thing, and you’re talking about that early on. Those boundaries are really important to have to be able to detach so that you can get the mental break. The emotional break, the physical break from your workday, because you do spend a lot of time at work.

[00:43:44.630] – Eric James

You spend an awful lot of time. Most of your awake time in life, if you’re in America, is at work. And if you’re thinking about work… I don’t know about you all, but there is a particular performance that happens at work. You are expected to be professional. Professional is socially constructed, and I don’t even know what that is anymore because it changes on a daily basis.

[00:44:06.650] – Eric James

But at the same time, we have to be “on” for that period of time, and that’s exhausting. Especially for someone like me, I’m an introvert. So when I give a lecture or something like this, it wipes me out. I come home and talk to my family. I try to have energy for them, but sometimes it’s hard.

[00:44:23.330] – Janice Summers

You need a rest. And that’s an interesting thing because the majority of performers, truth be told, are introverts. They can perform because they take on a role. But it’s exhausting. So we can perform at work, we’re taking on a role, we’re doing our job, and it’s exhausting. We need a break.

[00:44:43.970] – Eric James

Imagine that standing on the floor all day long in a blue-collar facility. And by blue-collar work, I mean like industrial. Let’s say you’re a welder, there’s actually organizations, believe it or not, that are blue-collar that do prescribe CrossFit before work. No joke. They have chiropractors and nutritionists, they’re self-insured. It just brings about a whole slew of questions, and yet these organizations, they are given accolades. Healthy Employer of the Year.

[00:45:14.810] – Eric James

To me, it’s missing the boat. People are seeing what they want to see and thinking this is the answer to our health care crisis in America, but it’s not. I think it’s perpetuating the exclusive practices that we’ve really always had, but just in a different way.

[00:45:31.310] – Janice Summers

And perpetuating lack of diversity and inclusion. I hate to say this, but our time is already up. I think we’ve gone a little longer, but I’m sorry I just really enjoyed this conversation.

[00:45:47.510] – Liz Fraley 

I got wrapped up. I stopped watching the clock.

[00:45:50.810] – Janice Summers

I’d go longer, but I’m getting this red thing flashing over on the side here saying time is up. It’s been flashing for a little while.

[00:45:59.630] – Eric James

I feel really passionate about this subject. If anyone does have questions or would like to bounce ideas off of me, I’d love to chat more about it, so feel free to email me. Hit me up wherever you can.

[00:46:10.850] – Janice Summers

I think this has been a great conversation, and one of which brings up even more issues or more questions. Not that we’ve got the answer to any of this, but I think simulating conversation opens up for interesting and creative answers.

[00:46:26.210] – Eric James

I think that is the answer. I can’t give you the panacea. I can’t. But if I want to get close, it’s talking about shutting up as the employer and listening, and just listening to what those needs are and creating a climate of trust in your organization.

[00:46:42.650] – Janice Summers

Absolutely. All right. Well, thank you again for joining us.

[00:46:46.730] – Liz Fraley 

Thank you so much.

[00:46:46.730] – Janice Summers

We really appreciate. It’s been a great conversation.

[00:46:50.210] – Eric James

I really enjoyed it, folks. Thanks for having me.

In this episode

Dr. Eric P. James has always been good at asking questions, often seeing multiple-sides to complex issues. Eric is an Associate Professor in the Communication Studies Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He researches issues relating to workplace wellness, organizational identity, and control. He asks questions about the consequences of the ever-present creeping arm of managerial control. He has been published in a variety of outlets including the Journal of Applied Communication Research and Management Communication Quarterly.

In this episode of Room 42, we explore the relationship between work, worker identities. We look at workplace wellness as a model for communication with content consumers. We discuss the role of our employer in maintaining the health of employees. With workplace wellness growing in popularity throughout the corporate landscape, it seems almost more rare for an organization not to have employee wellness practices. With more and more employers adopting wellness and fitness for their employees, we discuss the implications and consequences of workplace wellness using white-collar and blue-collar case-studies and various “extreme” cases of workplace health/lifestyle promotion.





TED talk (2021):

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