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Why the rise of wearable tech to monitor employees is worrying

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In this guest post, Ivan Manokha, Departmental Lecturer in International Political Economy at the University of Oxford, considers the use of wearable technology in the workplace and the potential privacy implications of collecting the data of employees. 

An increasing number of companies are beginning to digitally monitor their employees. While employers have always scrutinised their workers’ performance, the rise of wearable technology to keep tabs has more of a dystopian edge to it. Monitoring has become easier, more intrusive and is not just limited to the workplace – it’s 24/7.

Devices such as Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand and Jawbone UP, which can record information related to health, fitness, sleep quality, fatigue levels and location, are now being used by employers who integrate wearable devices into employee wellness programmes.

One of the first was BP America, which introduced Fitbit bracelets in 2013. In 2015 at least 24,500 BP’s employees were using them and more and more US employers have followed suit. For instance, the same year, Vista Staffing Solutions, a healthcare recruitment agency, started a weight-loss programme using Fitbits and wifi-enabled bathroom scales. Appirio, a consulting company, started handing out Fitbits to employees in 2014.

In the UK similar projects are under consideration by major employers. And this trend will only intensify in the years to come. By 2018, estimates suggest that more than 13m of these devices will be part of worker wellness schemes. Some analysts say that by the same year, at least 2m employees worldwide will be required to wear health-and-fitness trackers as a condition of employment.

According to some, this is a positive development. Chris Brauer, an academic at Goldsmiths, University of London, argues that corporate managers will now be comparable to football managers. They will be equipped with a dashboard of employee performance trajectories, as well as their fatigue and sleep levels. They will be able to pick only the fittest employees for important business meetings, presentations, or negotiations.

It seems, however, that such optimism overlooks important negative and potentially dangerous social consequences of using this kind of technology. History here offers a word of warning.

Historical precedent

The monitoring of workers’ health outside the workplace was once attempted by the Ford Motor Company. When Ford introduced a moving assembly line in 1913 – a revolutionary innovation that enabled complete control over the pace of work – the increase in productivity was dramatic. But so was the rise in worker turnover. In 1913, every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963, as workers struggled to keep up with the pace and left shortly after being recruited.

Ford’s solution to this problem was to double wages. In 1914, the introduction of a US$5 a day wage was announced, which immediately led to a decline in worker turnover. But high wages came with a condition: the adoption of healthy and moral lifestyles.

The company set up a sociology department to monitor workers’ – and their families’ – compliance with its standards. Investigators would make unannounced calls upon employees and their neighbours to gather information on living conditions and lifestyles. Those that were deemed insufficiently healthy or morally right were immediately disqualified from the US$5 wage level.

Analysing Ford’s policies, Italian political philosopher and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci coined the term “Fordism” for this social phenomenon. It signalled fundamental changes to labour, which became much more intense after automation. Monitoring workers’ private lives to control their health, Gramsci argued, was necessary to preserve “a certain psycho-physical equilibrium which prevents the physiological collapse of the worker, exhausted by the new method of production”.

Parallels today

Today, we are faced with another great change to how work is done. To begin with, the “great doubling” of the global labour force has led to the increase in competition between workers around the world. This has resulted in a deterioration of working and employment conditions, the growth of informal and precarious labour, and the intensification of exploitation in the West.

So there has been a significant increase in the average number of hours worked and an increase in the intensity of labour. For example, research carried out by the Trade Union Congress in 2015 discovered that the number of people working more than 48 hours in a week in the UK was rising and it warned of a risk of “burnout Britain”.

Indeed, employee burnouts have become a major concern of employers. A UK survey of human resources directors carried out in 2015 established that 80% were afraid of losing top employees to burnout.

Ford’s sociology department was shut down in the early 1920s for two reasons. It became too costly to maintain it in the context of increasing competition from other car manufacturers. And also because of growing employee resistance to home visits by inspectors, increasingly seen as too intrusive into their private lives.

Wearable technology, however, does not suffer from these inconveniences. It is not costly and it is much less obviously intrusive than surprise home visits by company inspectors. Employee resistance appears to be low, though there have been a few attempts to fake the results of the tracking (for example, workers strapping their employer-provided Fitbits onto their dogs to boost their “activity levels”). The idea of being tracked has mostly gone unchallenged.

Labour commodified to the extreme

But the use of wearable technology by employers raises a range of concerns. The most obvious is the right to privacy. The use of wearable technology goes significantly further than computer systems where emails are already logged and accessible to employers.

Surveillance becomes continuous and all-encompassing, increasingly unconfined to the workplace, and also constitutes a form of surveillance which penetrates the human body. The right to equal employment opportunities and promotion may also be compromised if employers reserve promotion for those who are in a better physical shape or suffer less from fatigue or stress.

It may also be argued that the use of wearable technology takes what the Hungarian historian Karl Polanyi called the “commodification” of human labour to an extreme. Monitoring worker health both inside and outside the workplace involves the treatment of people as machines whose performance is to be maximised at all costs. However, as Polanyi warned, human labour is a “fictitious commodity” – it is not “produced” for sale to capital as a mere tool. To treat it as such risks ultimately leading to a “demolition of society”.

To protect individual rights, systems have been introduced to regulate how data that is gathered on employees is stored and used. So one possible solution is to render the data collected by trackers compulsorily anonymous. For example, one company that collects and monitors employee data for companies, Sociometric Solutions only charts broader patterns and connections to productivity, rather than individual performance.

This, however, does not address concerns about the increasing commodification of human labour that comes with the use of wearable technology and any potential threats to society. To prevent this, it is perhaps necessary to consider imposing an outright ban on its use by employers altogether.

The ConversationIvan Manokha, Departmental Lecturer in International Political Economy, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.