Amazon has recently launched its Working Well program, with services designed to improve the mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing of its employees and workers. It’s important to make the distinction between employees and workers, as Amazon relies heavily on contract and temporary laborers, who can be let go at any time and to whom they do not have to offer benefits like health insurance. But who needs healthcare when you can enter an AmaZen “mindful practice room,” one of a number of “coffin-sized booths,” in the words of Vice, that Amazon is planning to introduce at its warehouses? There you can watch a video of a baby deer leaping through a field or whatever as you try to stave off intrusive thoughts about, say, your upcoming eviction.
Mindfulness training is growing in popularity in corporate culture. A watered-down mishmash of “eastern religious practices” and motivational speaker hucksterism, mindfulness training promises to teach its practitioners serenity, reduce their anxiety and stress, and make them more open to change; it even claims to impart physical benefits like reduced blood pressure. There are videos, apps, books, and entire TV shows to guide you through this process of clearing your mind of all negative thoughts and acting with more intention and presence.
It sounds compassionate, doesn’t it? Don’t you wish, when you’re struggling, for someone in charge to notice the difficult time you are having and work to make you feel safe and calm again? But let’s not kid ourselves: this is about large corporations forcing their workers to adapt to the terrible working conditions they have intentionally imposed – things like 10-hour working days and paying workers about half of what they would have been paid at a similar job decades ago – and could remedy, if the corporations wanted to, in an instant.
While claiming to be designed around concern for the “health” and “wellness” of its employees, the true goal of programs like these is always profit – increasing productivity and squeezing every last possible drop of labor out of your workers. It’s why corporations like Google, Apple and Harvard shell out big bucks for “mindfulness consultants” to train their workers not to be distracted by personal problems while on the job. They promise the workers reduced stress, but the consultants promise the employers they can reduce accidents, increase productivity, and decrease sick days. These consultants might charge thousands of dollars by the hour, but it’s still cheaper than paying all your workers a living wage.
For decades, mental health has been spoken of in the media and treated by doctors as a personal, but almost never structural, problem. If you’re depressed, surely it’s your “brain chemistry” and not the choking fear about your growing debt that keeps you from sleeping. This leads to treatment options like medication (if your insurance will pay for it), therapy (ha ha ha your insurance will definitely not pay for it), and now things like “mindfulness,” which has the added bonus for the government, the medical community, and your employers of being free once you’ve learned the techniques. Just close your eyes, breathe through the growing sense of dread, and get back to work.
But it turns out some of the biggest contributing factors to mental health distress are things like financial precarity and housing insecurity. Financial hardship remains one of the largest contributing factors to suicide attempts and rates go up as the economy goes down. If Amazon actually cared about the mental health of its employees, it would take some of the obscene wealth its executives made during the pandemic and funnel it downward. Maybe help stabilize the lives of your employees and you won’t have to supply them with a little room to hide their panic attack in.
If anyone needs truly a serenity box, it’s whoever is running Amazon’s social media accounts. After some bad press around the time it was trying to fend off a union drive at one of its warehouses, Amazon publicity operatives spent a week harassing politicians, journalists, and little ole me, for daring to believe and transmit factual information about what it’s like to work for their company. The effort backfired. Their insistence that Amazon was a great place to work only drew more media and investigatory attention that showed that actually, it’s not.
As detailed in Ronald Purser’s book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, mindfulness training has been adopted by the US military to clear the minds of soldiers and discourage them from questioning orders and by companies to quell dissent by exploited workers. Mindfulness reinforces the idea that it’s your response to stimuli that is the problem, and that the circumstances of your life are outside your control – so best to focus on coping with them instead. For a company like Amazon, which has responded to efforts to improve the working conditions of its warehouse workers and delivery drivers with aggressive union-busting strategies, guiding its workers toward the belief that the problem is their anxiety rather than their exploitation is going to be pretty useful.
It’s painful to walk around all day with a vague sense of “I hate this, this is terrible” building in your brain and burning through your chest. But it’s even worse to live under material conditions that you hate and are terrible. If it’s any help, just remember: no one says you have to go into that pod to whisper “it’s all right” to yourself. You can whisper whatever you want. In fact, you can always lock yourself in and mutter “union, union” through clenched teeth. Let the healing begin.