Journalist Laurie Penny, in a terrific piece for the punchy journal The Baffler, takes aim at the messaging of self-care and wellness from Powers That Be that may obscure a closer look at deeper societal problems:
The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns.
She posits that this “wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease,” one that renders us believing that we can improve our lives only on an individual level. Thus, we are conditioned to assume “that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted,” the problem is one not of our economic system, but rather of personal fault:
The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.
Such a belief system may foreclose us “from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.”
Individual vs. social change
To her credit, Penny does not dismiss the benefits of self-care and healthy living choices, confessing “that I’ve been doing yoga for two years and it’s changed my life to an extent that I almost resent.” But, at the very least, she’s asserting that the pendulum has swung away too far from societal perspectives on, and collective solutions to, conditions that stoke suffering, injustice, and deprivation.
Bingo. Especially here in the States, the wellness stuff may be a softer, gentler version of old fashioned American rugged individualism, embracing the myth that you make it or miss it on your own. Don’t get me wrong, being accountable to ourselves is a good thing. But all the personal responsibility in the world doesn’t make up for a stacked deck and abuses of power.
If we want to make the world a better place, we have to work on ourselves and our institutions and our communities, yes?
Applied to the workplace
This imbalanced focus on the individual captures why I have a problem with many workplace wellness programs. Standing in isolation, wellness programs are fine things. However, it is wholly ironic that these programs can pop up in workplaces that unnecessarily generate the very stressors and unhealthy living habits these programs are designed to address. Treating workers with dignity — including (at the very least) a living wage, fair employment practices, and a decent work environment — is the best employer-sponsored wellness program of all!
Of course, the individual vs. social change dichotomy can manifest itself in more dire workplace situations as well. For example, too many complaints about workplace bullying are dismissed as personality conflicts, and all too often the target of the mistreatment is blamed for somehow not adequately managing the situation.
This dismissive attitude ignores that workplace bullying has strong individual, organizational, and societal components. Of course, on an individual level, it involves perpetrators and targets, and those interpersonal dynamics can be complex. That said, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in the absence of an organizational culture that enables or even encourages it. On a broader societal level, abusive behaviors at work can be fueled by an absence of legal protections and the presence of a popular culture that accepts them as normal.
We need a reframe
So, folks, we need a reframe, one that looks at human problems at both the individual and societal levels, with responses and solutions shaped accordingly. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where we see individual change vs. social change as a false dichotomy, replaced by an understanding that we need both in order to create better lives, workplaces, and communities.