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New Means of Workplace Surveillance

From the Gaze of the Supervisor to the Digitalization of Employees

Monitoring is built in to many of the jobs that form the ‘gig economy’—but surveillance is increasing across the workplace

Monitoring is built in to many of the jobs that form the ‘gig economy’—but surveillance is increasing across the workplace. From The Guardian, "Employers are monitoring computers, toilet breaks—even emotions. Is your boss watching you?" Illustration by Nishant Choksi.

Ivan Manokha is a departmental lecturer in international political economy in the department of international development at Oxford University.


In the last twenty years or so, workplace surveillance has attracted a great deal of attention from academics and the mainstream media.1 This is explained by the proliferation of new electronic means of workplace surveillance, which are increasingly adopted by employers. It is now possible to track the movements of employees, record their conversations, register and analyze their performance in real time, and use biometric information for identity and access control, just to name a few examples. Most existing academic analyses of these developments emphasize how new surveillance technologies have enhanced the capacity of employers to monitor employees, often undermining various labor rights, particularly workers’ rights to privacy and equal treatment.2 In different media outlets—including some of the most influential ones, such as the Financial Times, New York Times, BBC, CBS, and Week—discussions of new surveillance technologies have also focused on the increased invasion of employee privacy.3 Most discussions in this area additionally addressed workers’ rights, including the right to privacy and to be free from discrimination.4

Importantly, however, workplace surveillance and the invasion of employee privacy have always been present under capitalism. The fact that human labor power is traded as a commodity that employers purchase and then seek to maximize surplus out of, requires some form of monitoring and evaluation, which necessarily involves a certain degree of interference with workers’ privacy. The question that arises in this respect is whether there is anything fundamentally different about workplace surveillance today compared to previous periods. In other words, are we dealing simply with quantitative changes, changes in the extent of surveillance, or with qualitative changes that affect the very nature of employee surveillance? In this article, I argue that the latter is the case and has important implications for the nature of power relations in the workplace.

Historically, workplace surveillance has mostly involved the combination of visual observation and abstract time, focusing on employee performance. However, the development of new information and communication technologies has brought important changes to the manner in which employers control employee productivity. Previously, workplace surveillance was discrete, limited to the gaze of the supervisor, and confined to the workplace. Now, it is omnipresent as electronic devices and sensors continuously gather and process digital data on employee performance in real time, even (and often) outside of the workplace. The health and fitness of employees is also increasingly monitored with the help of new technologies such as biometrics and wearable technology like Fitbits, and the information obtained (a worker’s body mass index, cholesterol level, physical activity, sleep quality, fatigue levels, and so on) is digitally processed and analyzed. Such digitalization or datafication of employees constitutes a qualitative change in the history of workplace surveillance—a change that reduces workers, their performance and bodies, to lines of code and flows of data to be scrutinized and manipulated. As a result, an individual employee becomes a score on a manager’s dashboard, an upward or downward trajectory, a traceable history of tasks performed, or a log file on a company’s server—stored in digital form and processed in ways that workers do not control and of which they may not even be aware. Although the proliferation of electronic surveillance and the digitalization of individuals is a general phenomenon that characterizes all of modern society, the increasing centralization and aggregation of data flows in workplaces sharply draws out the extent to which ordinary people’s lives are policed.5

In his early studies, Michel Foucault examined how the architectural design of institutions, like asylums and hospitals, spatially distribute individuals and organize a field of visibility, giving the watchers the power to scrutinize and control the behavior of the watched (patients, workers, prisoners, etc.) and to punish those whose behavior violates the established rules.6 In Discipline and Punish and some of his later writings and lectures, Foucault shows that the nature of power in such institutions is not limited to a power of repression, but also involves the creation of “docile bodies” as the watched, aware that they are under constant surveillance, internalize the existing norms and behave in the required manner without coercion—that is, they exercise power over themselves.7 In his later works, Foucault focused on biopower, a form of power that, according to him, emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century and later developed in parallel to disciplinary techniques.8 Biopower is exerted by the state onto its population by branding it with aggregate characteristics—birth rate, mortality rate, cycles of scarcity, recurrence of epidemics, and so on—with poor health considered a threat to state power and wealth. Thus, the increasing monitoring of employee health and fitness can be understood as a form of privatizing and exercising biopower. It was with the emergence of biopower that governments started to focus on the welfare of the population and gradually medicalized it through various campaigns and policies, leading to the emergence of “‘biopolitics’ of the human race.”9

Old Workplace Surveillance Model: Visual Gaze and Abstract Time

One of the key distinguishing features of capitalism, compared to previous modes of production, is the commodification of human labor. As Karl Marx observed, capital comes to life only when it meets, in the marketplace, a “special commodity”—labor power. “The purchaser of labour-power consumes…by setting the seller of it to work” and seeks to maximize by limiting any potential waste or underperformance.10 This, in turn, necessitates supervision and control, “a barrack-like discipline, which is elaborated into a complete system in the factory, and brings the…labour of superintendence to its fullest development, thereby dividing the workers into manual labourers and overseers.”11 Indeed, right from the start, the capitalist workplace has been one of those institutions, alongside asylums, clinics, hospitals, military barracks, and schools, which Foucault, following Jeremy Bentham, referred to as panoptic.12 The distinguishing feature of such panoptic dispositifs is the central role played by the visual surveillance of spatially distributed individual bodies.13 Such architectural design, as Foucault observed, is adopted to maintain discipline and instill obedience.

Foucault did not explicitly address the power of the gaze in the workplace, but it is interesting to note that the inspiration for the panopticon was the organization of factory labor. Indeed, Bentham borrowed this idea from his younger brother Samuel who was charged by the Russian prince Grigory Potemkin to manage his workshops at Krichev, on the river Dnieper. Samuel was concerned with how to best train and oversee a force of inexperienced local workmen, and came up with the idea of a circular factory building in a central position, from which the workers would be supervised. As Bentham observed, “you will be surprised when you come to see the efficacy which this simple and seemingly obvious contrivance promises to be to the business of…manufactories, prisons, and even hospitals.”14 Foucault argues that the disciplinary power of panoptic institutions was necessary for capitalism to develop because it provided the bourgeoisie effective and cheap means to deal with its social consequences (such as the increasing numbers of beggars, vagabonds, robbers, and undisciplined workers) and to instill in the general population appropriate work habits (such as obedience, respect for authority, time management, and efficiency).15 As he notes in Discipline and Punish, it is hardly surprising that prisons resemble factories, which, in turn, resemble prisons.16

The exercise of visual surveillance in the workplace has always been performed in combination with abstract time and involved the observation of workers as well as the evaluation of their performance in relation to different schedules or objectives expressed in units of time. Although, before capitalism, time was used to control the labor process—for example, bell ringing in monastic offices was used to mark the workday of guild laborers in medieval Europe—it was not yet used in each workplace to measure the effort of each worker. For example, guild laborers set their own pace of work and took breaks whenever they saw fit.17 The de facto privatization of time occurred only with the rise of capitalism when human labor power became a commodity. Technologically, the entry of the clock into each workplace beginning in the eighteenth century was enabled by the dissemination of the portable and precise mechanical clocks with which “the full abstraction of work time into commodified hours would occur.”18 By the end of the eighteenth century, “the marriage between work, the hour, and pay became standard within the factory.”19

It is useful to recall Marx’s distinction between extensive and intensive exploitation as a means to increase surplus value. The former refers to methods that increase the amount of time dedicated to work (for example, elongating the working day or reducing breaks), while the latter describes techniques seeking to raise worker productivity (for example, accelerating the rhythm of work or making the laboring process more efficient). Extensive exploitation characterized the factory labor process in the nineteenth century, before it was met with more and more worker resistance and reform movements in the latter half of the century. This compelled factory owners to focus on improving productivity instead, which, at the time of Marx’s writing, mostly involved investment in better machinery.20 The entry of the stopwatch into the workplace several decades later was an important landmark in productivity enhancement—as well as workplace surveillance—and spurred the birth of scientific management.

Although scientific management had earlier precursors, it was systematized and popularized by Frederick Winslow Taylor. In his famous time and motion studies, Taylor sought to analyze the labor process in order to maximize worker productivity.21 This would be achieved in two ways: on the one hand, by limiting the time wasted during the production process, such as by decreasing distances walked, eliminating unnecessary movements, and, in particular, by combatting worker “soldiering”—that is, “deliberately working slowly”; on the other hand, by developing preplanned production targets whose achievements would be facilitated by segmenting the labor process into a set of basic operations that could be easily performed even by unskilled laborers.22

Taylor believed that it was “only through the adoption of modern scientific management that the great problem [of soldiering] could be finally solved” and employers could obtain “the maximum output of each man and each machine.”23 As has been widely noted, what Taylor’s scientific management involved was the development of increasingly sophisticated techniques of worker surveillance and monitoring.24 “The rule of the Taylorist system is that the unobserved worker is an inefficient one.”25 In this respect, Taylor’s innovation contributed to the further expansion of the disciplinary power within the workplace, establishing “a kind of anatomo-chronological schema of behaviour” under the gaze of the supervisor.26 Until the rise of electronic surveillance, developments in workplace surveillance occurred within this model without any significant changes, with one historical exception: Henry Ford’s experiment with monitoring worker hygiene and health, which can be understood as an early attempt by a private enterprise to exercise biopower.

In 1913, Ford dramatically increased productivity by introducing a moving assembly line. However, worker turnover rose sharply in tandem. In 1913, every time the company wanted to add one hundred men to its factory personnel, it had to hire 963 because workers struggled to keep up with the pace of the labor process and left shortly after being recruited.27 Ford’s solution was to double wages. In 1914, it was announced that workers would be paid five dollars per day, immediately leading to a decline in worker turnover. But high wages came with a condition: the adoption of healthy and so-called moral lifestyles. Workers were eligible to be paid five dollars a day if they were a “male employee over 22, who leads a clean, sober and industrious life” or a “married man who can qualify as to sobriety, industry and cleanliness if he is living with his family.”28 In a brochure titled Helpful Hints and Advice to Employees, the company explained that it would only pay five dollars a day to those employees who “live healthily and cleanly,” “make their homes clean,” and “use plenty of soap and water in the home, and upon their children, bathing frequently.”29 The company also recommended that employees “go to the doctor’s office at once” should they “notice a loss of weight, a persistent cough, or have excessive night sweats.”30 Ford set up what was called a Sociology Department, staffed with about thirty “inspectors” to monitor workers’ and their families’ compliance with these standards. Inspectors would make unannounced calls on employees and their neighbors to “collect information from every one of the employees” on their living conditions and lifestyles.31 Those that were deemed insufficiently healthy or moral were immediately disqualified from the wage of five dollars a day.

As Antonio Gramsci points out in his analysis of Fordism, Ford’s concern with the health and morals of his employees had everything to do with changes in the objective conditions—the development of mass production and an increased intensification of labor, which required physically fit laborers capable of enduring the rhythm of the assembly line. Gramsci argued that Ford’s assembly line was a “more wearying and exhausting” form of “consumption of labor power,” and Ford’s attempt to control workers’ health and morality were means “to preserve, outside of work, a certain psycho-physical equilibrium which prevents the physiological collapse of the worker, exhausted by the new method of production.”32

New Technologies of Workplace Surveillance

We now live in a world in which “every e-mail, instant message, phone call, line of written code and mouse-click leaves a digital signal” and different patterns can be “inexpensively collected and mined for insights into how people work.”33 Indeed, it is now possible to track the movement of employees inside and outside the workplace, record employees’ conversations with customers as well as with each other, take screenshots of an employee’s computer screen and record all the operations performed (software used, files opened, text typed, etc.), and the list goes on. In addition, employers increasingly use biometric information (retina and iris scans, electronic fingerprinting, hand geometry, etc.) for identity and access control, as well as for operating company devices and equipment, which also assist employers in analyzing the operations of individual employees.34

Numerous enterprises operating in the industry of user-activity monitoring (UAM) currently exist. Most of the key firms are American, but more companies have been recently created in other countries, including Australia, Israel, France, and Ireland. The current UAM market is estimated at $1.1 billion and is expected to grow to $3.3 billion by 2023.35 To understand the available products and services of UAM, let us take InterGuard, developed by Sonar, as an example. InterGuard offers employers the possibility to record and analyze employees’ e-mail, social-media, instant-message, keystroke, Internet, geolocation, file, and printing activity. InterGuard states that the employer “will always have the forensic data to sort through using intelligent search analytics,” such as a comparative analysis of employee performance ranked for any activity, reports on a selected user over any time period, and alerts concerning unusual behavioral patterns.36 Similar services are now offered by a whole range of other products, such as ActivTrak, Time Doctor, Toggl, Activity Monitor, WorkTime Corporate, and Berqun. The adoption of UAM technologies is now extremely widespread, particularly in the United States where, according to the American Management Association, 66 percent of companies monitor their employees’ Internet use, 45 percent log keystrokes, and 43 percent track employee e-mails.37

There now also exist technologies that enable employers to track employees’ movement. For example, Amazon warehouse loaders carry devices that indicate the shortest route to the shelves, alerting them in real time if they are running behind on their target and by how much. Managers can send messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, stop talking, or any other command. The system of tracking is also widely used by delivery firms. Already in 2009, the United Parcel Service (UPS) started using technologies that wirelessly transmit data from remote sensors and GPS devices to computers for analysis.38 The monitoring system now includes handheld delivery-information acquisition devices, as well as more than two hundred sensors on each delivery truck that track everything from backup speeds to stop times and seat-belt use.39 A midlevel executive in California recently brought a lawsuit against her employer for firing her because she uninstalled an application from her company-issued iPhone. The application tracked her outside of work, monitoring her driving speed even during nonwork hours and even when the phone was turned off.40 Such monitoring of employees outside the workplace is likely to grow as employers continue to provide employees with devices (laptops, mobile phones, fitness trackers) that remain the property of the employer, who can access the data from the devices at any time.41

Some firms develop devices that, in addition to tracking employee movement, also analyze social dynamics at work—how employees talk to one another, for how long, in what tone, how they sit at lunch, who they have coffee with, and so on. Thus, in 2015, a Boston-based analytics firm, Sociometric Solutions, supplied twenty companies with employee ID badges fitted with a microphone, location sensor, and accelerometer in order to examine how employee interactions affect performance.42 One of its clients, Bank of America, discovered that, in the cafeteria, certain people only sat with three other people (at four-seat tables) while others sat with eleven people (at twelve-seat tables). Those who sat at larger tables were 36 percent more productive during the week. When the company initiated layoffs, employees who sat at larger tables also had 30 percent lower stress levels than those who sat at smaller tables. More recently, Walmart patented a system called Listening to the Frontend that is based on the use of sound sensors, which, in addition to recording the conversations of workers and shoppers, also monitors specific noises, like the beeps of item scanners and rustling of bags.43 A whole sector has emerged in the United States in which firms specialize in studying how millions of employees behave every day, in real time. Evolv, for example, analyzes more than half a billion employee data points globally—such as how often employees interact with their supervisors and with whom they speak.

One of the most recent developments is the practice of “microchipping” employees—placing rice grain-sized radio-frequency identification (RFID) implants under the skin—a technology developed by the Swedish enterprise Epicenter, most of whose employees now have these microchips implanted. Another company, Three Square Market, which is based in Wisconsin, also recently microchipped half of its employees at a “chip party” organized for this purpose.44 The key advantage of the implant, according to the chief executive of Epicenter, is that it “replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys” as it allows individuals to operate printers, open electronic locks, and purchase snacks from company vending machines, to name a few examples.45 Because of the device’s convenience, Three Square Market representatives believe that “everyone will soon be doing it.”46 At the same time, it is acknowledged that these chips enable management to track employees’ every move, from the number and duration of toilet breaks to the purchase of drinks and food from company vending machines.

In addition to these developments in monitoring employee productivity, recent years have seen the proliferation, particularly in the United States, of corporate wellness programs that focus on employee health and fitness and push employees to adopt “behaviors that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, [and] enhance personal effectiveness.”47 Two-thirds of U.S. employers now offer some kind of wellness program; in 2013, 99 percent of large firms (those with two hundred or more workers) offered at least one wellness program.48 Out of the U.S. employers who offer health benefits, 74 percent offered at least one of the following wellness programs in 2014: weight loss programs, on-site exercise facilities, biometric screening, smoking-cessation programs, personal-health coaching, nutrition or healthy-living classes, web-based resources for healthy living, and flu shots or other vaccinations. To encourage employee participation in wellness programs, most companies use financial incentives, such as lower health-insurance premiums, decreased out-of-pocket medical expenditures, smaller copays or deductibles, cash, gift cards, and merchandise.49 According to a survey of 121 U.S. employers, in 2015 such financial incentives climbed to a record $693 per employee, from $594 in 2014 and $430 five years earlier.50 The market size for wellness programs in the United States is currently estimated at $6 billion and is expected to cross $13 billion by 2023, growing at 8 percent a year.51 Globally, the market size was estimated at $40.7 billion in 2014, with workplace wellness covering about 9 percent of the international workforce, primarily those who live in industrialized countries or work for large, multinational firms.52 On top of this, it is predicted that “wellness at work is a sustainable movement that will gain momentum across the world in the coming 5–10 years.”53

An increasing number of wellness programs involve the collection and analysis of personal data concerning employee fitness and health.54 Walmart, for example, pays Castlight Health to assess employee medical data and nudge employees to participate in weight loss programs or physical therapy instead of expensive operations.55 The Swedish company Scania AB goes even further with its “employeeship” and “24 hour employee” policies designed to encourage employees to take responsibility for keeping themselves in good physical shape and, therefore, workable condition. As stated by a human-resources official, “Scania cares for its employees, both on and off the job. We try to help them live healthier. Our interest and care for the employees does not end when they leave work.”56 It is explicitly assumed that employees should take care “of health-related things such as physical fitness, personality traits, and so on…[which] are part of the resources that an employee is expected to bring to work.”57 As a nurse from the company’s health department puts it, “if you only eat fast-food and never do any exercise you might end up as a rather unattractive and useless employee.”58

In addition to traditional medical examination, many wellness programs provide biometric screenings and increasingly resort to wearable technology to digitally monitor employees. Thus, 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 as part of their wellness programs.59 One of the first to do so was BP America, which introduced Fitbit bracelets in 2013. In 2015, at least 24,500 BP employees were using them and countless other U.S. employers have followed suit. For example, Profusion used Fitbits and other applications to track 171 personal metrics—including sleep quality, heart rate, and location—for thirty-one members of staff, twenty-four hours a day. Based on the data obtained, the company divided its personnel into either the “busy and coping” or “irritated and unsettled” categories. In 2014, Appirio gave Fitbits to around four hundred employees and Vista Staffing Solutions, a health care-recruitment agency, started a weight-loss program using Fitbits and Wi-Fi-enabled bathroom scales.60 Edward Buckley, the founder of Peerfit, which connects employers and fitness centers, predicts that, in five years, wearables will track more aspects of employees’ health and data-driven incentives will be the norm in most workplaces.61

New Workplace Surveillance Model: Employees as Digital Data Flows

With the proliferation of new electronic means of surveillance, human bodies are abstracted from their territorial settings and separated into a series of discrete flows, which are then reassembled into distinct “data doubles” to be scrutinized and targeted for intervention (for example, by security services, commercial entities, and public services), as well as sorted, categorized, and profiled in ways that are out of individuals’ control but that directly affect their lives (such as their chances of receiving credit, qualifying for an allowance, and being allowed to board a plane).62 Overall, “the digitization processes occurring all through society now” have brought “an unprecedented number of ways in which bodies can be monitored, assessed, analyzed, categorized, and, ultimately, managed.”63 What seems to be distinctive about the workplace, however, is that we are starting to see an increasing aggregation of different forms of data flows. Thus, employers can gather data concerning employees’ productivity, communications, movements inside and outside the workplace, as well as their physical conditions—body mass index, cholesterol levels, diet, exercise, lifestyle, and so on—in order to create individual employee profiles.

One of the promoters of the use of wearable technology on employees, Chris Brauer from Goldsmiths, University of London, predicted in 2015 that more and more managers would have dashboards with each employee’s performance and fitness trajectories, which, in turn, would transform the very nature of management as corporate managers begin to increasingly resemble sports managers.64 Thus, just like a soccer manager would not call an injured player onto the pitch, a corporate manager would not choose an employee who suffers from fatigue to attend a vital meeting or give an important presentation. Current trends, particularly the rapid growth of the productivity-applications industry, which was already estimated at $11 billion in 2015, seem to confirm this prediction. For example, one of the leading firms in the industry, BetterWorks, develops “office software that blends aspects of social media, fitness tracking and video games,” with which “employees and their bosses set long- and short-term goals, and, over time, log their progress on a digital dashboard.”65

In addition, we are now seeing a rapid growth in digital platforms such as Uber and Postmates, that bring together customers and workers, with the latter usually referred to as independent contractors. Surveillance is the modus operandi of digital platforms and usually takes the form of aggregate performance scores and/or rankings assigned to employees based on customer feedback.66 This is because so-called independent contractors are not employees of digital platforms—they are not personally known to the company and customer evaluations are the only source of information regarding their service provision. The same applies to future customers, who rely on feedback from previous clients. What is important is that workers registered with such platforms—for example in housekeeping (Workday, Upwork, Elance, TaskRabbit) or urban transportation (Uber, Lyft, Zipcar)—exist not as persons but as digital profiles, consisting primarily of their performance scores as well as other indicators (the number of tasks performed so far, the time spent on a given type of task, reactivity in responding to task offers, punctuality, criminal record, etc.). And crucially, they exist as workers only as long as platforms continue to display their profiles online; if platforms decide to deactivate them, which usually happens when their scores fall below a certain threshold, they are fired.

All these developments have important implications for power relations in the workplace. With the visual gaze of the supervisor being replaced by an automated electronic gaze—that is, an automated, continuous, and real-time data collection and analysis performed electronically—the disciplinary power within the panoptic dispositif of the workplace has considerably increased. Regarding the dimension of disciplinary power that consists of wielding authority over workers, employers are now better equipped to detect employees’ nonproductive activity and insufficient effort, allowing bosses to more easily discipline workers. For example, in a recent undercover investigation of working conditions at an Amazon warehouse near Glasgow by the Daily Mail, the extent of electronic surveillance discovered was so enormous that Amazon employees were referred to as “Amazombies” and it was exposed that immediate disciplinary action was taken against workers who ran behind the assigned schedule or those who were deemed to have taken too long during bathroom breaks.67 In addition, new technologies allow for much more individualized surveillance than before.68 The number of employees who can be monitored in such individualized and detailed manners is now potentially unlimited.

Seeing that individuals are expected to operate in such panoptic settings, it is likely that, with their individualized focus, new technologies will also increasingly pressure each worker to perform better, fulfill assigned targets, and outperform team members. Instances of such self-discipline have indeed been observed. At UPS, for example, it has been found that workers change their behavior due to the monitoring technology: some attempt to outperform and beat the targets, while others confess that they “get intimidated and…work faster.”69 Not only that, but, within four years of deploying its surveillance system, UPS was delivering 1.4 million additional packages per day with one thousand fewer drivers.70 Similar insights may be drawn from Benjamin Snyder’s and Karen Levy’s studies of long-distance truck drivers, which also reveal that, under constant electronic monitoring, drivers feel pressure to not take mandated breaks and to continue working even when sleep is necessary.71 As a result, returning to Marx’s distinction between extensive and intensive exploitation, the increase in the disciplinary power of modern workplaces contributes to the growth of both forms of exploitation—employees tend to work longer and more intensely.

However, since the monitoring of employee productivity is now increasingly complemented by the focus on employee health and fitness, what is taking place is a form of privatization of biopower in the workplace, whose extent and reach is incomparably greater than what Ford had ever hoped to achieve and which does not require physical intrusion into workers’ lives. Indeed, Ford eventually had to put an end to the monitoring of workers’ homes and lifestyles because it was increasingly resisted by employees who saw it as inappropriate and paternalistic.72 By contrast, modern techniques of obtaining highly detailed and individualized information on employees can easily cover entire workforces and are used either directly in the workplace (for example, biometric screening) or at a distance (for example, read from wearable devices or uploaded by workers themselves to specialized company platforms).

Crucially, the individualization and growth of biopower seems to further reinforce the panoptic dimension of the workplace, particularly the imperative for employees to police and discipline themselves. For Ford employees, the incentive to pursue healthy and so-called moral lifestyles was to not lose the eligibility for the doubled wage; for modern employees, what is at stake is their very employability—their attractiveness as employees expressed by data. This puts extra pressure on workers to not only be productive, but also physically fit and more self-disciplined (such as to adopt dietary restrictions, exercise more regularly, and quit smoking). This is because employees “who smoke, are overweight or sedentary are automatically seen as inactive and unproductive,” while the image of the ideal worker has now become “the exercise-addicted corporate athlete who is able to carry out a hard day of creative labour while happily leading an exercise class after work.”73 As a result, corporate wellness programs “are creating guilt and anxiety in employees.”74 As reported by André Spicer, “one big wellness program we looked at led previously happy employees in a stable job environment to become anxious about losing their jobs. It seemed to make them think they needed to be more attractive to their employer, and if they did something like smoking a cigarette, they felt it affected their employability.”75 Thus, while Foucault used the term docile bodies in a more figurative sense to designate the behavior of individuals who, in a panoptic setting, exercise power over themselves in order to conform to the existing rules, modern monitoring of health and fitness seems to be leading to the creation of docile bodies in a literal sense—bodies that are made healthy, fit, and attractive by employees in order to remain competitive and employable.

We live in the period of flexible capitalism, marked by “a variety of changes to production processes, employment arrangements, management strategies, and the like,” which results in disruptions to secure and predictable career trajectories, the growth of precarious employment, irregular scheduling, the extension of working hours, and the erosion of worker rights and benefits.76 These processes have led to a significant increase in work-related illnesses and injuries, employee fatigue, stress, psychological breakdowns, and the development of associated health problems and even chronic diseases such as diabetes.77 These health issues are costly to enterprises in terms of health payments and the costs of employee turnover.78 However, even if wellness programs do manage to achieve certain minor improvements—for example, reducing risk factors such as smoking and increasing healthy behaviors such as exercise—not only do they fail to address the increase in precarity, insecurity, and intensity of work, which are responsible for workers’ stress and illnesses, but they actually add more anxiety and stress.79

This new paradigm of workplace surveillance, despite its significant growth, is still in its early stages of development and is largely confined to the United States, particularly in terms of health and fitness monitoring. There have been some encouraging developments in the field of regulation outside of the United States (especially regarding the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation) that suggest that the general spread of new surveillance technologies will be limited. But if workers are to retain their humanity, what is needed is widespread mobilization and resistance to oppose these tendencies as surveillance technologies become more sophisticated and more attractive to employers.


  1. For academic interest in the topic, see, for example, Ifeoma Ajunwa, Kate Crawford, and Jason Schultz, “Limitless Worker Surveillance,” California Law Review 105 (2017): 735–76; Kirstie Ball, “Situating Workplace Surveillance: Ethics and Computer-Based Performance Monitoring,” Ethics and Information Technology 3, no. 3 (2001): 211–23; Kirstie Ball, “Workplace Surveillance: An Overview,” Labor History 51, no. 1 (2010): 87–106; Scott D’Urso, “Who’s Watching Us at Work? Toward a Structural-Perceptual Model of Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance in Organizations,” Communication Theory 16, no. 3 (2006): 281–303; Frederick Lane, The Naked Employee (New York: American Management Association, 2003); Alex Rosenblat, Tamara Kneese, and Danah Boyd, “Workplace Surveillance,” (working paper, Data & Society Research Institute, October 2014); Elia Zureik, “Theorizing Surveillance: The Case of the Workplace,” in Surveillance as Social Sorting, ed. David Lyon (New York: Routledge, 2003), 31–56. For attention given to the topic by mainstream media, see, for example, Amy Delgado, “Employee Privacy at Stake as Surveillance Technology Evolves,” CBS News, August 18, 2018; Conor Dougherty and Quentin Hardy, “Managers Turn to Computer Games, Aiming for More Efficient Employees,” New York Times, March 15, 2015; Esther Kaplan, “The Spy Who Fired Me: The Human Costs of Workplace Monitoring,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2015; Lorraine Kelly, “Amazombies,” Mail on Sunday, December 3, 2016; Hannah Kuchler, “Data Pioneers Watching Us Work,” Financial Times, February 17, 2014; Steve Lohr, “Big Data, Trying to Build Better Workers,” New York Times, April 20, 2013; Sarah O’Connor, “Wearables at Work: The New Frontier of Employee Surveillance,” Financial Times, June 8, 2015.
  2. Ajunwa, Crawford, and Schultz, “Limitless Worker Surveillance,” 743, 772; Ball, “Workplace Surveillance,” 91, 93; Lane, The Naked Employee.
  3. Sarah O’Connor, “Bosses Reading Your Emails Are Not Breaching Your Privacy,” Financial Times, January 13, 2016; Sarah O’Connor, “Workplace Surveillance is Sparking a Cyber Rebellion,” Financial Times, January 19, 2016; Lohr, “Big Data”; Dougherty and Hardy, “Managers Turn to Computer Games”; Rob Walker, “Contemplating a Trap for Prying Eyes at Work,” New York Times, February 16, 2017; Ryan Derousseau, “The Tech That Tracks Your Movements at Work,” BBC, June 14, 2017; José Luis Peñarredonda, “How Much Should Your Boss Know About You?” BBC, March 26, 2017; Jason Kashdan, “New Ways Your Boss Could Be Keeping Tabs on You,” CBS News, August 21, 2015; Delgado, “Employee Privacy at Stake as Surveillance Technology Evolves”; The Week Staff, “The Rise of Workplace Spying,” Week, July 5, 2015.
  4. Ann Hendrix and Josh Buck, “Employer-Sponsored Wellness Programs: Should Your Employer Be the Boss of More Than Your Work?” Southwestern Law Review 38, no. 3 (2009): 465–78; Ajunwa, Crawford, and Schultz, “Limitless Worker Surveillance”; The Future of Wellness at Work (Miami: Global Wellness Institute, 2016); Sarah O’Connor, “Wearables at Work”; Gwen Moran, “This Is the Future of Corporate Wellness Programs,” FastCompany, May 10, 2017; Rachel Silverman, “Bosses Tap Outside Firms to Predict Which Workers Might Get Sick,” Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2016.
  5. See Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson, “The Surveillant Assemblage,” British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 4 (2000): 605–22; Joshua Nichols, “Data Doubles: Surveillance of Subjects Without Substance,” CTheory, February 17, 2004; Oscar Gandy, The Panoptic Sort (Boulder: Westview, 1993); Lyon, ed., Surveillance as Social Sorting; Didier Bigo, “Security, Exception, Ban and Surveillance,” in Theorizing Surveillance, ed. David Lyon (Devon, United Kingdom: Willan, 2006).
  6. Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic (London: Tavistock, 1976); Michel Foucault, History of Madness (Abingdon-on-Thames, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2006).
  7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1979); Michel Foucault, “The Eye of Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York; Vintage, 1980), 146–65; Michel Foucault, “Sexuality and Solitude,” in On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 365–72; Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982–1983 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). See also Ivan Manokha, “Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age,” Surveillance & Society 16, no. 2 (2018): 219–37.
  8. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976 (New York: Picador, 2003) and Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
  9. Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended, 243.
  10. Karl Marx, Capital: Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 270, 283.
  11. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 549.
  12. Foucault, Discipline and Punish; Foucault, “The Eye of Power.” The Panopticon was conceived as a type of institutional building and system of control that would allow all subjects to be observed by a single watcher without being able to tell that they are being surveilled. Although it is impossible for the single watcher to watch every subject at once, the fact that the watched cannot know when they are being observed means that they are motivated to act as though they are being surveilled at all times. This effectively compels them to police themselves. Panoptic describes institutions and spaces with such disciplinary mechanisms.
  13. Dispositif is a term used by Foucault to generally refer to the various mechanisms and structures that bolster, maintain, and reproduce the exercise of power within a social body. It consists of “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid.… The [dispositif] itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.” Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh” (1977 interview), in Power/Knowledge, ed. Gordon, 194–228.
  14. Jeremy Bentham, The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3 (London: Athlone, 1971).
  15. See Manokha, “Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age.”
  16. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 198.
  17. Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  18. Benjamin Snyder, The Disrupted Workplace: Time and the Moral Order of Flexible Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 34, 38.
  19. Snyder, The Disrupted Workplace, 36.
  20. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 533–34.
  21. See Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour; Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Basic, 1990).
  22. Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 13–14.
  23. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 27.
  24. See Martha Crowley, Daniel Tope, Lindsey Chamberlain, and Randy Hodson, “Neo-Taylorism at Work: Occupational Change in the Post-Fordist Era,” Social Problems 57, no. 3 (2010): 421– 47.
  25. Rosenblat, Kneese, and Boyd, “Workplace Surveillance,” 2.
  26. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 152.
  27. Keith Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1948).
  28. Helpful Hints and Advice to Employees: To Help Them Grasp the Opportunities Which Are Presented to Them by the Ford Profit-Sharing Plan (Detroit: Ford Motor Company, 1915), 8.
  29. Helpful Hints and Advice to Employees, 7, 13.
  30. Helpful Hints and Advice to Employees, 17.
  31. Helpful Hints and Advice to Employees, 9.
  32. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, (New York: International, 1971), 303.
  33. Lohr, “Big Data.”
  34. Ball, “Workplace Surveillance.”
  35. Data retrieved from Research and Markets,
  36. Data retrieved from Research and Markets.
  37. The Week Staff, “The Rise of Workplace Spying.”
  38. Kaplan, “The Spy Who Fired Me,” 32.
  39. Kaplan, “The Spy Who Fired Me,” 32.
  40. Ajunwa, Crawford, and Schultz, “Limitless Worker Surveillance,” 769.
  41. Kaplan, “The Spy Who Fired Me,” 32.
  42. The Week Staff, “The Rise of Workplace Spying.”
  43. Delgado, “Employee Privacy at Stake as Surveillance Technology Evolves.”
  44. “Wisconsin Company Three Square Market to Microchip Employees,” BBC, July 24, 2017.
  45. Associated Press, “Cyborgs at Work: Swedish Employees Getting Implanted with Microchips,” Telegraph, April 4, 2017.
  46. “Wisconsin Company Three Square Market to Microchip Employees.”
  47. Leonard Berry, Ann Mirabito, and William Baun, “What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs?” Harvard Business Review 88, no. 12 (2010): 104–12.
  48. 2014 Employer Health Benefits Survey (San Francisco: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2014).
  49. John Cawley, “The Affordable Care Act Permits Greater Financial Rewards for Weight Loss: A Good Idea in Principle, but Many Practical Concerns Remain,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 33, no. 3 (2014): 811.
  50. Sharon Begley, “Employer Incentives for U.S. Worker Wellness Programs Set Record,” Reuters, March 26, 2015.
  51. Corporate Wellness Market in US—Industry Outlook and Forecast 2018–2023 (Chicago: Arizton—Advisory and Intelligence, 2018).
  52. Spas and the Global Wellness Market: Synergies and Opportunities (New York: Global Spa Summit, 2010).
  53. The Future of Wellness at Work, 11.
  54. Ajunwa, Crawford, and Schultz, “Limitless Worker Surveillance,” 763.
  55. Mikael Holmqvist and Christian Maravelias, Managing Healthy Organizations (New York: Routledge, 2011), 79.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid., 80.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ivan Manokha, “Why the Rise of Wearable Tech to Monitor Employees Is Worrying,” Conversation, January 2017.
  60. Manokha, “Why the Rise of Wearable Tech to Monitor Employees Is Worrying.” See also Sarah O’Connor, “Wearables at Work.”
  61. Moran, “This Is the Future.”
  62. Haggerty and Richard Ericson, “The Surveillant Assemblage” and Lyon, Surveillance and Social Sorting.
  63. Irma van der Ploeg, “The Body as Data in the Age of Information,” in Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, ed. Kirstie Ball, Kevin Haggerty, and David Lyon (London: Routledge, 2012), 177.
  64. Wearables at Work, Facebook video, June 8, 2015,
  65. Dougherty and Hardy, “Managers Turn to Computer Games.”
  66. See Ivan Manokha, “Le Scandale de Cambridge Analytica Contextualisé: Le Capital de Plateforme, la Surveillance et les Données Comme Nouvelle ‘Marchandise Fictive,’” Cultures & Conflits 109 (2018): 35–59.
  67. Kelly, “Amazombies.”
  68. Ball, “Workplace Surveillance,” 89.
  69. Kaplan, “The Spy,” 31.
  70. Kaplan, “The Spy.”
  71. Snyder, Disrupted Workplace; Karen Levy, “The Contexts of Control: Information, Power, and Truck-Driving Work,” Information Society 31, no. 2 (2015): 160–74.
  72. Henry Ford, My Life and Work (Scotts Valley, California: CreateSpace Independent, 2017).
  73. Carl Cederström and André Spicer, The Wellness Syndrome (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), 38.
  74. Scott Berinato, “Corporate Wellness Programs Make Us Unwell: An Interview with André Spicer,” Harvard Business Review (2015): 28–29.
  75. André Spicer, quoted in Berinato, “Corporate Wellness Programs Make Us Unwell.”
  76. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2005); Peter Cappelli, The New Deal at Work: Managing the Market-Driven Workforce (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999); Snyder, Disrupted Workplace, 3; Arne Kalleberg, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011); Guy Standing, “Understanding the Precariat through Labour and Work,” Development and Change 45, no. 5 (2014): 963–80.
  77. The Future of Wellness at Work, 17; Lauren Berlant, “Risky Bigness: On Obesity, Eating, and the Ambiguity of ‘Health’,” in Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality, ed. Jonathan Metzl and Anna Kirkland (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 26–27.
  78. Juliet Hassard, Kevin Teoh, Tom Cox, Philip Dewe, Marlen Cosmar, Robert Gründler, Danny Flemming, Brigit Cosemans, and Karla Van den Broek, Calculating the Cost of Work-Related Stress and Psychosocial Risks (Bilbao: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2014).
  79. Soeren Mattke, Harry H. Liu, John P. Caloyeras, Christina Y. Huang, Kristin R. Van Busum, Dmitry Khodyakov, and Victoria Shier, Workplace Wellness Programs Study: Final Report (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2013), 106; The Future of Wellness at Work, 12.
2019, Volume 70, Issue 09 (February 2019)
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