News Release

What is “Wellness Capitalism”?


In a primer for Data & Society, Wellness Capitalism: Employee Health, the Benefits Maze, and Worker Control, sociologist Tamara Nopper and research analyst Eve Zelickson describe the history of employee health and wellness programs in the U.S.––and how those programs have morphed into a form of “‘wellness capitalism,’ a model of public health involving the state, employers, and a wellness industry in which worker behaviors are monitored to improve society’s health.”

    Zelickson is a research analyst with the Labor Futures team at Data & Society. She studies issues at the intersection of technology, labor, health, and privacy. 

Nopper and Zelickson argue that wellness capitalism hinges on a “powerful win-win narrative,” which suggests that employers and employees benefit from employee assistance programs (EAPs) and employee wellness programs (EWPs): “workers are told they will be healthier, and employers are told they will save money.” The programs are primarily supplied through third-party providers which are subject to fewer health privacy regulations than traditional healthcare providers. 

Zelickson told the Institute for Public Accuracy: “There is potent rhetoric about [employer] investments in these programs. But there’s no consensus that these programs actually improve health and wellness. The marketing is very tech-forward; they often use nascent, overhyped technology like AI and predictive algorithms.” 

Zelickson hopes that the primer will be particularly helpful to workers who are already organized, and that it can help them to “think more deeply about the types of benefits they want. In organized workplaces, there is a lot of conversation around healthcare and insurance, but benefits often get overlooked. Those workplaces should pay attention to the [wellness] benefits being offered and to how their data is being collected.” Given that employees can be subject to penalties for non-participation in EAP and EWPs, experts are also concerned that wellness benefits can lead to “lifestyle discrimination” by employers. (The American Civil Liberties Union, Nopper and Zelickson write, states that “the most common victims of this type of discrimination are smokers and fat people.”)

Zelickson added: “This is a privatized, for-profit model of healthcare. Do we want to be reliant on our bosses and our employment for these services? What should the role of the employer be in health and healthcare?”