An essay for Dirty Furniture magazine tracking the historical relationship between labour and desks.

Office labour in these conditions is a hard sell to a human consciousness: given the choice, it’s pretty safe to assume that most people would not lock themselves in a cubicle to perform the sort of repetitive data entry, communications or telesales tasks that make up the majority of basic service sector jobs for the pursuit of fractional returns. As such, over time, the protestant narrative of work as a virtuous pursuit for self-completion and competitive success has given birth to the neoliberal ouroboros of ‘efficiency’, where physical fitness and labour are brought together under the delightfully vicious name of ‘wellness.’

The proponents of this ideology advocate a paradoxical state of being more ‘well’ than you are now: more healthy, more intelligent, more active, more connected, more driven, more energetic, more cultured, more worldly, better read, more social. But, as Carl Cederström & André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, this is largely a diversionary tactic late capitalism has invented to distract workers from the deleterious effect it is having on their health, all the while shifting the burden of fixing it onto the individual. If the office is to function as a well-oiled, efficient machine, then workers must be the most efficient, smooth running and compliant components possible – the ‘happily stupid athletes of capitalist productivity’, as journalist Steven Poole described it.

Returning to our original example, the treadmill desk materialises ‘wellness’ in its most purified form - the convergence of the protestant-neoliberal work ethic into a single artefact. It also signifies a shift in the spatial control of alienation. Where, historically the health and leisure pursuits of the white-collar worker were largely up to the individual, human resource departments have increasingly begun to lean heavily on gym memberships and cycle-to-work schemes, complimented by rigorously enforced ergonomic guidelines.

Last updated: 05.2020