Job makes us sick

November 18, 2013

Workshop Talks

by Htun Lin

On Sept 19, Kaiser Permanente and the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions jointly announced the launch of the “Total Health Incentive Plan,” touted as a new way to encourage “employees to make their own health a priority, while building a culture of health in the workplace.” It is part of a corporate trend with Fortune 500 companies, known on Wall Street as total wellness programs, with penalties imposed on workers who do not comply.

Kaiser imposed added staff cuts in the same breath as it announced the Total Wellness campaign. While it is promoted as voluntary, the program hides the reality of the health of workers and patients sacrificed daily in the name of cost efficiency.

Management claims its “regional approach to incentives designed to encourage employees to adopt more healthy lifestyles” will make “individuals more likely to participate, removing the fear of being singled out about their health.” Yet individuals are already singled out by the existing attendance policy, endorsed by the union.

Workers realize they risk their own health and the health of their patients when they come to work sick. Yet workers are called into disciplinary meetings when they exceed the company set limit in the number of sick days. It doesn’t matter if your absences have been approved by your doctor.

Kaiser blames individual workers for their own state of health which in reality is adversely impacted by unsafe work conditions individual workers have little or no control over.

Kaiser bureaucrats were forced to reverse their decision to reduce mental health services through draconian staffing cuts. After so many patients complained of facing increasing barriers to access mental healthcare services, the state of California stepped in with fines and sanctions.


When management puts austerity and cost-cutting ahead of well-being, individual human beings pay the price.  Constant staff cuts to reduce costs create unsafe working conditions.

Workplace injury rates such as falls, back injuries and needle-sticks are constantly monitored to cut costs. But left out of the scorecard are immeasurable chronic stress levels which cause depression, smoking and other addictions, unhealthy eating habits, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Instead, management relegates those morbidities to the realm of “culture.” Tragically, suicide has also become part of that culture.

In my last column “Suicide As Revolt,” I discussed a report which detailed an increase in rates of suicides by young migrant hi-tech assembly line workers at China’s FoxConn. But the deep alienation experienced at FoxConn is only the tip of the iceberg.

All across Europe, suicide rates have risen dramatically since the launch of austerity measures imposed by governments in response to the global economic decline following the widespread financial collapse.

Some cuts don’t heal. Depression is on the rise in the U.S. as well. The emergency room where I work has seen a noticeably sharp rise in attempted suicides, especially by the very young and the very old.

“Total Wellness” is not possible in this kind of society. Capitalism separates mental health from physical well-being, deeming only the funds spent on the latter as a part of variable capital, which if possible capitalists would like to reduce all the way down to zero. The truth is neither kind of wellness is possible without healthy human relations based on genuine cooperation.

Karl Marx warned that capitalists know how to take our natural tendency to work collectively, co-opt it, and pervert it towards capital’s bottom-line ends.


I see workers come to work sick, with full-blown flu symptoms, saying, “I didn’t want to be a burden on my co-workers.” Workers know that when they call in sick, they will not be replaced, so they assume the burden of responsibility for management’s failure-by-design.

Capital not only expropriates our labor time as individual laborers, it also appropriates our natural desires and tendencies to work as a collectivity and our profound desire to cooperate with each other.

We need to reclaim not only the value stolen from our labor but the meaning of our own labor before we can embark on a quest towards total wellness for one and all.

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