The Abusive Corporation's New Tool: Wellness and Mental Health

On May 20, Amazon announced that they’d be adding a new mental health benefit for all US employees, including counseling, crisis support, and some sort of app (of course). Part of that announcement included a bizarre object - the Amazon “ZenBooth”, a “Mindful Practice Room,” a weird box you can go into at some point during your day, one should assume outside of a worker’s shift, and experience some sort of guided meditation. Though this is definitely Amazon attempting to rehab its image, this is all part of an effort by corporations to appear to give a shit about the mental wellness of their employees in a way that is comfortably tax-deductible and looks good to the outside world without a meaningful effect on their lives.

Let me take a step back.

The corporate wellness market is worth about $50 billion, and if you listen to the PR people behind it, it generally exists to make the lives of workers healthier and better by giving them things like gym memberships and healthy snacks and meditation app access. On the surface it’s noble - it’s a way that a company looks to improve your life as a benefit of being a member of the company - but in practice these are the actions that exist to benefit, like all benefits, the corporation itself. And while I believe it’s great to give people access to any kind of healthcare service, especially mental health, I also feel like these services are often worded to get positive press without actually providing much to the worker, and, indeed, don’t solve the mental health problems the company itself causes. It’s also worth noting from Amazon’s own statement that you get “three sessions” on a “per-topic” basis - and so, just like every single means tested thing in the world, it has been immediately charged with the energy necessary to deflect those who may want to use it.

I want to believe that Amazon truly is providing “a licensed mental health clinician any time of day” on their crisis/suicide-prevention lines, and I think, if it’s actually the case, that this is a noble thing to do. I just cannot bring myself to trust a company that treats workers so poorly, and indeed find the reason behind the trend somewhat troubling.

A friend of my wife’s works at a large company that provides free food, “nap rooms,” a huge library of content, and other seemingly positive benefits. Coincidentally, the person in question also regularly has to work 10+ hour days, taking calls on weekends too, and occasionally has to do conventions on weekends that are totally unpaid. Similarly, friends of mine at big tech companies tend to boast about their wonderful work perks, while at the same time being expected to spend extra time at the office. The more perks that there are, the more that a company can foreseeably get away with - how could we be treating you badly, when we provide you with all of these wonderful things at work?

These investments indeed seem positive - they are ways to make the work day better, nicer, easier on the person in question, but also are ways to create worker-company dependency - to keep them in the office to work, focused on work, giving more hours to the company than they otherwise would. It’s similar to how people are scared to leave their jobs because they’ll lose health insurance - but in this case, it’s that they’re afraid they’ll lose the services that come with being part of the company that have become necessary to live, like childcare. This allows the company to encroach on the time and energy of the person in question - they know they’re trapped.

As a sidenote, I should add that my argument is not that companies shouldn’t offer childcare services - it’s a good thing to do, and I honestly believe there should be universal childcare. It’s more that these benefits are often framed as company generosity, where they’re oftentimes mechanisms used by the company to keep someone in one place rather than to make their lives better.

Wellness benefits - and in particular mental health benefits - are also used as a means to divorce the company from the mental health of the worker. When I’ve had mental health issues at work in the past, it’s been because of poor management, bullying and other issues that aren’t really mental health issues. Companies love to talk about investing in the mental health of their workers without considering the ways in which the company deliberately and otherwise contributes to the deterioration of said mental health (or wellness in general). This doesn’t mean that these services aren’t useful, or that people can’t benefit from counseling - it’s just that they don’t ever seem to include the ways in which our work interferes with our mental health.

Workers generally feel unhappy when they feel like they don’t matter, or their work is difficult, or there’s a specific person that’s bothering them, or they can’t get their work done due to specific things, or hey, also because they can’t afford to pay their bills. Similarly, your “wellness” is affected directly by how happy you are, and, surprise surprise, can be affected a lot by how much of your time your job demands of you and how much you’re sleeping.

Weirdly, none of these company wellness or mental health initiatives seem to discuss the core contributors to mental health issues from the workplace. They don’t talk about evaluating the communication between workers, or the communication between managers and workers, or the communication between clients and workers. They don’t mention evaluations of the conditions that people work within, or the hours they work.

And, honestly, especially in the case of Amazon but basically any abusive workplace - who wants to trust mental health services from the abuser? Will you get judged for using them? Can you use them too much? Mental health is such a vulnerable, trust-driven exercise - it’s tough to go to, it can be a painful process - and if the workplace is the primary antagonist in a person’s life, how likely is it that they’ll actually use these services?

The truth is that the mental health/wellness hand-waving exists to make sure the company doesn’t have to invest in being a better workplace. The thing that would make most people have better mental health at work would be better pay and reasonable hours, and giving them the means to do their work better. While there are always stressors at work based on the demands of labor, there are also unnecessary stressors created by poor management, bad processes, slow computers, long commutes, poor pay and long hours. If a company truly wants to commit to wellness - mental and otherwise - they should commit to a re-evaluation of the actual conditions of labor rather than the fringe benefits that someone gets in addition to their pay.

I feel like I’m repeating myself, but I want to be clear that I think a lot of these benefits are a net positive - I just believe that they are used in many cases as a means of choosing to indirectly invest in the worker in a way that makes the company look good. And it’s absolutely the action of an abuser - they hurt you, they make you feel bad, they promise they’ll make you feel better but ultimately tell you that the problem is yours, and that you “need help.” And, of course, the abuser is the one to offer that help - on their terms, through their means, as long as you’re with them.

Therapy requires safety and trust, and when it doesn’t work, it can be because of poor self-care - such as not leaving an abusive environment or relationship. And that’s before you consider the ways in which work is killing you - the longer the hours, the more likely you are to have a stroke or of heart disease. And these core benefits are built to make you work longer hours, and thank the company for working them.

There is a way to do this right, and it’s to divorce the company entirely from the process of mental health process - it shouldn’t be on their terms, on their facilities or using their therapists. It also can’t be means-tested or limited - it has to be something that’s offered to be assess and treat mental health issues, which is not the case here. It’s an ongoing investment of time, energy and money, and if you’re receiving it from the source of the stressor, what good is it anyway? Especially from Amazon, a place known for its abusive, discriminatory culture. And why would you trust that your counseling sessions are private with Amazon’s approach to privacy?

If a job is making you commute an hour each way and having you work ridiculous hours with no extra compensation for it, but also giving you free counseling, they’re not really that concerned with your mental health. They’re just concerned with you finding a way to cope with the oftentimes unfair conditions they’re putting you under, and doing so in a way that’s significantly more affordable than making your life better and paying you more money.