April 18, 2022

Work and the Body

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Several years ago, the small company my husband worked for had an employee challenge: get the company’s logo tattooed on a visible part of your body, and the company would donate several hundred dollars to the charity of your choice.

My husband did not take them up on this offer (and his team was soon after acquired by another company anyway), but several of his coworkers did. More than just a charitable impulse, it seemed like a way for these employees to demonstrate their commitment to the small startup. This was a company that expected its workers to be not just good employees, but “heroes” that would be available at any hour to meet its clients’ needs, albeit with little room for growth in terms of career or salary.

This example is an unusual way in which work impacts the body.  Modifying our appearance to meet the expectation of an employer is usually less permanent than a tattoo—and yes, it had to be permanent to meet the challenge—but even more superficial modifications can have lasting consequences.

Many work places have formal and informal dress codes that promote specific appearance norms, which change based on the industry, occupation, and region. Some companies might have written rules about employees’ appearance, some of which might be highly gendered; even if formal rules are not in place, informal dress codes might be gendered as well (if women are expected to wear, for instance, skirts or dresses instead of pants). Not following a dress code might not necessarily lead to an overt sanction, but it might give off the appearance of being “unprofessional” in that setting.

Hairstyles and facial hair might also fall under formal or informal rules. The U.S. Army recently changed its hair regulations to be more culturally inclusive, with no minimum length requirement for any personnel. These regulations are gender specific:

The updated standard will also allow females with long hair the option to wear a ponytail while wearing an Army Combat Uniform during physical training, or while wearing tactical headgear during tactical training or combat operations. The Army defines long hair as a length that extends beyond the collar. Army standards require this hairstyle to be neatly and inconspicuously fastened above the collar's lower edge.

While other work settings might not be as specific, there are still informal expectations that may impact someone’s standing in a company. For instance, someone working in finance might stand out if they dyed their hair blue, but in a more creative industry this might not be as unusual.

The work itself can take a physical toll.  Many studies show that sitting for long hours can present health risks, and spending long hours in front of a computer screen contributes to eye strain. Repetitive motions can occur on the job, such as wrist injuries from hours of mouse-clicks or scanning grocery items. Health care workers also face several risks, even beyond contracting COVID-19; lifting people, sharp needles, chemical exposure, and of course stress take their toll on the body.

Low wage workers often face the most serious impact of work on the body. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America details her experiences as a low-wage worker as part of an experiment she conducted for the book. Hours on her feet working as a restaurant server or stocking shelves in a big-box store, often with little to eat, exhausted her. Working for a house cleaning service, she witnessed a coworker pressured to stay on the job after being injured.

Likewise, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer studied low-wage workers for their book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. They interviewed one woman whose work cleaning foreclosed homes—without heat during the winter in Chicago—exacerbated her asthma, causing her to lose work, and ironically, be penalized for doing so by gradually being given fewer and fewer hours by her employer.

Sometimes repetitive motion injuries incurred on the job or workplace accidents make workers unable to continue working. Sociologists Susan Starr Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle interviewed uninsured Americans, including a former miner, who took on the risky work of mining for the benefits. He survived a fire in the mine, and later was injured after a fall which required surgery. The mine eventually closed, along with his health benefits. He was later able to get a job installing telephone lines but soon after starting he fell after going into cardiac arrest when he was only 51. High medical bills followed, and he had no job, no health insurance, and no ability to work.

For more privileged workers, the benefits of working at home not only offer flexible hours, but perhaps more opportunities to take breaks and work in a less stressful environment with less physical risks to one’s health and safety, even beyond COVID-19 infections.

What types of work have you done? What impact have your jobs had on your body?

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