Healthy Working Lives: Exclusion in Disguise?

Contribution by: Dr Noortje van Amsterdam

Coronamaatregelen op kantoor © iStockphoto.com/Halfpoint
Corona measures at the office © iStockphoto.com/Halfpoint

Contribution byDr Noortje van Amsterdam for the Gender, Diversity and COVID-19 platform. The platform offers a series of short blogposts in which we invite different Hub members and researchers to share their findings, insights and reading tips on issues of inclusion and exclusion related to the Corona crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically disrupted and changed working lives and routines. Before, a runny nose or slight cough did not warrant staying home. Nowadays, working from home is expected and celebrated as responsible.

Working spaces have changed too, with added hand-sanitizers, cleaning supplies, walking routes, mouth masks, compulsory attendance lists and/or working from home in an increasingly digitalized, online structure, where companion species such as children, partners, pets and plants infiltrate working lives as never before. All these changes are due to re-conceptualizations around health and work incited by the coronavirus pandemic.

A healthy worker is a good worker?

Health has long since been an important topic of interest within workplaces. The assumption that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce has resulted in numerous workplace health promotion programs offered by organizations to their employees. Assumptions about health have informed normativities that construct a healthy worker/body as a good worker/body. But who counts as healthy and who does not? How are lines between workers redrawn or reinforced through changing ideas and practices related to health in pandemic times?

The (re)production of inequalities through health

The mention of obesity, age and disability as risk factors in relation to the virus and ethical questions around who deserves care in an overburdened healthcare system, illustrate the need to unravel how inequalities are being (re)produced in relation to health. For example, what do walking routes through organizational spaces mean for workers with mobility issues? How does working from home impact working mothers and fathers differently? And how does gender intersect with ethnicity in professions categorized as ‘essential work’ where workers cannot help working in close proximity to others? Metaphors around war in media discussions on the pandemic - we are “battling” coronavirus and applauding “front-line” workers - furthermore showcase the need to understand affective circulations related to fear and guilt in producing particular realities that are favourable for some and less so for others. My concern is how the pandemic impacts people’s working lives by promoting particular idea(l)s around health that exclude workers who cannot adhere to the young, ablebodied and slender norms implicit in these idea(l)s.