When it comes to fair and progressive employee treatment, Amazon is not exactly the first name that springs to mind. Quite the opposite, when one recalls the warehouse health scandals at the start of the pandemic, the many minimum wage struggles already prior to that and, most recently, the various stories of Amazon drivers having to urinate in cups and bottles for fear of being fired if they are seen as having too much down time on their 10-hour delivery runs (often with up to 300 parcels requiring delivery).
And yet, Amazon recently announced the launch of its “WorkingWell” initiative aimed at “providing employees with physical and mental activities, wellness exercises, and healthy eating support that are scientifically proven to help them recharge and reenergize, and ultimately reduce the risk of injury”. WorkingWell is part Amazon’s mission to become ‘Earth’s Safest Place to Work’ and one of a number of safety projects in 2021 funded through a budget of more than $300 million.
Introducing the AmaZen
Alongside ‘Wellness Zones’, ‘Health and Safety Huddles’, and ‘EatWell’ iniatives, to name but a few, one item in particular has caught the wrath and ridicule of social media: The AmaZen. The blue booth pictured here standing in one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers, is the brainchild of Leila Brown, in charge of the company’s ‘Holistic Wellness Approach’. A Workplace Health and Safety employee based in Florida, Brown is trained in sports medicine and has a keen interest in holistic health and wellness, and alternative therapeutic care. “For me, AmaZen is about the practice of holistic, guided mindfulness. Helping employees make their daily jobs and lives better is such a rewarding part of what I do, and I can’t wait to see the impact we make as we bring AmaZen more sites,” she explained. “With AmaZen, I wanted to provide a place that’s quiet, where people could go and focus on their mental and emotional well-being. The ZenBooth is an interactive kiosk where you can navigate through a library of mental health and mindful practices to recharge the internal battery.”
The official Amazon press release describes the AmaZen as follows: “AmaZen: Guides employees through mindfulness practices in individual interactive kiosks at buildings. During shifts employees can visit AmaZen stations and watch short videos featuring easy-to-follow wellbeing activities, including guided meditations, positive affirmations, calming scenes with sounds, and more.”
Employees like Katie Miller from an Amazon fulfillment center in Etna, OH, say the pilot program has been helpful. She shared, “Self-care is important, and AmaZen gives me an opportunity to take time for myself to just pause and regroup which helps me be better at work. When I take that time, I come back to work more focused, and it has a lasting effect on the rest of my day.” True story or PR copywriting script?
A coffin-sized booth, a flying portaloo, panic room, dystopian idea…
Reactions across social media have been scathing, with many questioning exactly when Amazon workers who appear to be penalized for answer calls of nature, should have either the time or the will to use the AmaZen. One meme-video portrayed the AmaZen as a portaloo on bungee ropes where the employee is flung into the air inside the portaZen, and is promptly covered with its entire fluid contents. A more macabre image showed a superimposed Tardis-like box with the words ‘Suicide Booth $0.25’ on the side and a flashing ‘In Use’ sign on the top.
One person tweeted “Imagine working in a place where this is deemed necessary,” another asked, “Do I go there before or after a manager who never worked in a warehouse sets my target at 200% of what's humanly possible?”, and a third posed the question: “Is the ZenBooth also soundproof so one may scream inside it?”
Most reactions called for better sanitary access, working conditions, and fairer pay, especially given the sky-rocketing profits that Amazon has enjoyed throughout the pandemic, and yet of which employees have not felt any benefits. Worse: some who were forced into sick-leave with Covid-19, complained that they had struggled to get paid near the start of the pandemic. The huge rise in e-commerce has exacerbated already tough packaging and delivery conditions.
What’s the ideal solution?
Amazon has been accused of sugar-coating terrible working conditions without providing the circumstances that will allow the booth to be used. The question is if warehouse workers would want to use this in the first place? Mental health is certainly a topic that deserves and requires solutions, yet in an exposed warehouse, how many would want to be seen walking into the booth? Surely, better solutions would be first and foremost to improve working conditions (hours and pay – possibly also childcare), to invest in proper break rooms, to provide fitness/massage facilities on the premises after shifts, and to offer professional coaching/counselling funding if required and requested by employees.
Mental health is still stigmatized so more private support is needed. Yet, preventing mental health issues in the first place is preferable – in other words, alleviating stress-inducing work conditions and poor pay.
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