Wellness and the Working-Class: The Artifice of Benefits under Capitalism

Wellness Spending Accounts (WSAs) first-and-foremost enhance the “bottom line” at the expense of the working-class.

Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash.

While non-hierarchical associations and equitable horizontalism appear to drape many workplaces, another folly of improved social relations of production has grown popular in recent years. Much like contemporary employers have hung-up their power-suits for business casual and traded-in fossil-fuel guzzling sports cars for lithium-powered autonomous vehicles, wellness spending accounts (WSAs) convey a progressive shift on the part of the owning class. Through WSAs, the vogue capitalist of the present “invest” in their workers’ wellness via “physical fitness, such as gym memberships” or “expenses related to mental well-being, like therapy sessions or mindfulness retreats”.1 Differing themselves from the disconnected bourgeoisie of a bygone era, the broadminded entrepreneur of today directly assembles, implements, and shapes a performance of support for each individual employee.

Gaining traction across the country, data from a 2022 survey conducted by Benefits Canada, an insurance provider for small and medium enterprises, shows a 16% growth in companies adopting said programs when compared with the pre-pandemic period. The report also noted that 34% of employers not yet administering WSAs are taking these programs under consideration. Amidst declining wages, unprecedented inflation, and growing research detailing capitalism’s toll on working class health,2 the provision of WSAs point to a prevalence in revised employer-based supports. With the growth of such programs, it is surprising that little critical research has followed suit.3

Sometimes described as a “wellness bank,” WSAs are set-up by owners and allocate an annual balance for a given employee to withdraw reimbursements for “eligible” expenses spent on regenerative goods and services. Showing there is value in granting strained workers the chance to relax through periodic spa treatments or massages, some employers may even authorize extravagant activities such as meditation workshops, nature excursions, or a “wellness weekend getaway”. Understanding the need for workers to “de-stress and recharge,” this modern take on benefits allows employees to “escape from the daily grind,” through a novel yet transactional system of repayments. Recognizing that “unhappy, stressed-out workers are less productive,” by fostering a worker’s health and well-being, WSAs are a means to stabilize (re)production.4

Intended to revive and restore, once the scaffolding of a WSA is examined it becomes clear that this provisional benefit may very well leave the proletariat worse off. One apparent example of this is how WSAs systematically silence organized labour. On the surface, WSAs arguably augment support for a singular worker, yet their growth is indicative of the retrenchment of universal health benefits once won through organized class struggle. What gets lost in the quick transaction of WSAs, which please employers not wanting to deal with union ‘red-tape,’ is that it is solely the owner who fashions what the amount shall be, and which activities or commodities are eligible for approval. Once the annual allotment is depleted so are all further supports denied.5 In a transparent promotion of the top-down benefits WSAs garner for owners, one provider noted that the “advantages of using a wellness spending account” is they can actually “restrict employee allowance spending” and, if outside that deemed as an acceptable expense, repayments can be easily annexed. As another insurer advertised, WSAs work to secure “control for your company” (emphasis added).

A further problematic of WSAs is their deceptive tax designation. Any monies reimbursed to an employee via WSAs in a given year are required by the Canadian state to be deemed as (personal) income. Unlike many healthcare benefits in the country, those who take part in wellness spending accounts must “note WSA allowances are taxable … meaning WSA funds used up by an employee contribute to their yearly taxable income (T4).” Apart from the possibility of a worker not being aware of or prepared for this additional load, so does this reveal a more insidious ill. The balance of said accounts are, in fact, furnished from a silo of unpaid wages. Payments come not from the owner at all but are an expression of withheld earnings that are distorted and deceptively presented as an exclusive gift of financial support.

Instead of using a language of benefits, WSAs are less a motivation of bolstering a worker’s well-being than an obfuscation of it. A more accurate description is that they help brace the reproduction of capital. Prefacing that capitalism has forever held a position of “indifference” to the well-being of the working class, Gargi Bhattacharyya identifies how social reproduction can work as an affront for capital to feed on that not previously consumed. Contrary to some altruistic impulse or momentary strike of moralism, such methods are a bridge to further stabilization while expanding accumulation. Rather than the sphere of social reproduction being an exempt purview for-and-of the proletariat, Bhattacharyya deliberates how even this “landscape” becomes infused for the benefit and control of intertwined capitalist interests.

Designed and implemented without any input from the employee, WSAs interfere with — or outright manipulate — the proletariat self-directing their own particular social reproductive endeavours outside the workplace.6 By compelling employees to participate in targeted top-down activities, workers are engineered to consume and engage in pursuits of-and-to the owner’s liking, which directly benefit capitalist ends. Workers who partake in the program privilege the bourgeoisie as a whole via private for-profit consumptive expenditure while individual owners gain from a replenished (and possibly even grateful) body of labour power to exploit at no expense to them, as it is the worker’s extracted wages that remunerates their own reimbursement. It doesn’t take a Marxist to confirm this appraisal, since it is heeded clearly through the description provided by the very sellers of such policies.

In 2023, GroupHealth, one of Canada’s largest insurance brokers, developed a public relations campaign highlighting how WSAs should not be interpreted as a loss of capital for an owner, nor do they impose a fiscal burden over their duration. Such packages are more aptly auctioned as investment opportunities to generate a more pliable and less-costly workforce. By incentivising workers with small sums of capital to “pursue a healthier lifestyle,” WSAs help ensure the employer’s return on investment, as the former “translate into healthier employees”.7

WSAs are advertised to affix increased profit over a medium- and long-term cycle. Subscribing to the notion that, “healthier employees have fewer absences, lower presenteeism, and higher productivity,” investors are sold on the hope that WSAs will, “also have a positive impact on claim costs for the rest of your [employer] benefits plan.” Leading with the assertion that “healthier employees … need fewer health interventions,” GroupHealth follows that WSAs generate “fewer health benefit claims,” and therefore heightened future returns. As clearly articulated, these policies are about increasing the surplus value extracted from workers while decreasing the wage allocation and overall cost of labour power. The catalyst is not to increase or support the upward sociocultural or affective/effective development of the worker. WSAs first-and-foremost are to enhance the “bottom line” at the expense of the proletariat.

Far from some ethical shift in the class antagonism, WSAs are a contemporary demonstration that try to offset capital’s inherent instability. The application and purpose of said policies are not initiated with an aim to better the worker as a social being, but to steady capital during a period when many are questioning what are, if any, the benefits to sustaining such a system. Relying on Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore’s now infamous observation of “capitalism saving capitalism from capitalism,” WSAs can be soundly understood as another tool of its flailing attempt at self-preservation.

Opting for individual fleeting pockets of short-term rejuvenation from capitalism, rather than addressing it as that which makes us unwell, will only prolong an unfulfilling perpetual (and unsustainable) need to escape. Against an economic, political, and societal backdrop, where compounding contradictions draw greater clarity of capital’s (lacking) fitness,8  all within the social relations of production are drawn closer to the reality of capitalism’s limits. As Antonio Gramsci famously said, “illusion is the most tenacious weed,” in obscuring collective consciousness, it is vital to clearly see, as a class, what society needs so no worker is compelled to reach for a low-hanging fruit that disappears as quickly as it fails to satiate. 


  1. WSAs are centred on individual-based patterns of consumption targeting an array of approved emotional or physical activities and commodities. Unlike other workplace health-based policies, WSAs are sold as “proactive” rather than “reactive” ↩︎
  2. In early 2024, the Bank of Canada diagnosed the country with the highest recorded rates of inflation in four decades, while Statistics Canada detected wages as not only failing to remain constant but declining across provincial and territorial regions. Even after considering issues associated with Covid-19, workers in both the private and public sector witnessed said decreases. Nor is a substantive shift in temperature expected. With current inflation the result of profit maximization rather than increased wage rates, “labour’s share of income and real wages have been falling sharply even as unemployment falls”. Even if an upturn was to emerge, a better prognosis does not look likely, as “lower inflation does not mean lower prices; it means a slower increase in prices”. Against this reading, it is not difficult to absorb current research showing how those who do not own the means of production are impacted by a system that (re)produces a fragile well-being. ↩︎
  3. This could be due to the hostile climate that workers increasingly find themselves in; a heightened turbulent environment of stagnant remuneration, hostility to collective bargaining, the normalization or precarity, etc. Furthermore, to scorn any perceived gain for an individual worker would seem contradictory if not tone-deaf. For example, to interrogate any policies of supposed support, with so many without any, can generate intra-class tensions through a sentiment of select workers as “privileged” and somehow distinct from “the ‘real’ workers”. It is, however, precisely because of the current political-economic and sociological disposition that such discussion is vital. ↩︎
  4. Iain Ferguson, Politics of the Mind: Marxism & mental distress (Bookmarks, 2023), 27. So does a distressed working class compromise the well-being of the bourgeoisie. Entirely dependent on their exploitability, capital is wholly reliant on wage-labour (i.e., surplus value, the provision of commodities, consumption, and so on). As the latter are increasingly (made) unwell, be it through an inability to materially keep pace with stagnating wages trailed by a decline in good health, so is the capitalist’s capacity to extract value detrimentally impacted. Regardless of its expression or iteration(s), if those who produce are absent – for reasons of impeded wellness or elevated rates of class struggle (e.g., rebellions, strikes, work actions, and so on) – so is the constitution of the reaper (and paradigm) compromised. ↩︎
  5. WSAs are entirely different from universal health benefits or reactive health-care spending accounts, which attend to trauma already levied upon the body and mind. Not insignificant, such consumption affords access and a speedy gratifying gain for the worker, while securing a substantively reduced economic load for the employer. When compared to other broader benefit packages, a WSA is not only of significantly less cost to the capitalist but its proactive approach toward a given worker’s well-being is experienced as instantaneous, which may be enticing and welcomed to an alienated anxiety-riddled proletariat. ↩︎
  6. As noted by Ellen Meiksins Wood, “the domain of power” held by capital increasingly “imposes its imperatives on every sphere of human life and compels us to act in ways damaging to our own well-being … in the interests of profit maximization and capital accumulation”. Within a system that prioritizes capital, “the economic impulse of capitalist production conditions the so-called noneconomic” and thereby negates any “separation” between spheres of society, as Tithi Bhattacharya has argued. ↩︎
  7. While minimal data is available on employer-specific WSAs in Canada, the majority of reported amounts range between $350 to $600 per annum, which is more than enough to have such a company awarded one of “Canada’s Best Workplaces”. There were two employers, however, noted for surpassing these amounts at $1,000 and a “generous” $2,500, which was followed by an interesting addendum that stated the latter was not guaranteed but could allow a worker to claim “up to” the stated amount. In a clarifying tone that these accounts are not a prioritization of a worker’s well-being, traders in such accounts speak directly to owners of the advantageous benefits to be captured through these short-term minimal expenditures. Rather than being misinterpreted “as an additional monetary perk,” they are aptly defined as “a small pot of money they [employees] can tap into for various expenses” centred around “services and experiences” that stabilize layered economic returns through immediate and repeated (re)production. Referencing data from the insurance sector, indicators claim that “the average cost of employer-sponsored health benefits in Canada is expected to decline to five per cent” this year, which further indicates that the uptick in WSAs may already be assisting such a process in increased profits — for owners. ↩︎
  8. Current dynamics have led Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant to go so far as to conclude that the present model produces a “fantasy of individual health under the political-economic conditions of capitalism” ↩︎

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