The end of capitalism has often been imagined as a crisis of epic proportions. Perhaps a financial crisis will occur that is so vast not even government finances can rescue the system. Maybe the rising anger of exploited individuals will gradually congeal into a political movement, leading to revolution. Might some single ecological disaster bring the system to a halt? Most optimistically, capitalism might be so innovative that it will eventually produce its own superior successor, through technological invention.

But in the years that have followed the demise of state socialism in the early 1990s, a more lackluster possibility has arisen. What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is just met with a yawn? From a political point of view, this would be somewhat disappointing. Yet it is no less of an obstacle for the longer-term viability of capitalism. Without a certain level of commitment on the part of employees, businesses run into some very tangible problems, which soon show up in their profits.

This fear has gripped the imaginations of managers and policymakers in recent years, and not without reason. Various studies of employee engagement have highlighted the economic costs of allowing workers to become mentally withdrawn from their jobs. Gallup conducts frequent and wide-ranging studies in this area and has found that only 13 per cent of the global workforce is properly “engaged,” while around 20 percent of employees in North America and Europe are “actively disengaged.” They estimate that active disengagement costs the U.S. economy as much as $550 billion a year. Disengagement is believed to manifest itself in absenteeism, sickness and—sometimes more problematic—presenteeism, in which employees come into the office purely to be physically present. A Canadian study suggests over a quarter of workplace absence is due to general burnout, rather than sickness.

Work carried out by the psychologist Robert Kahn and his colleagues at the University of Michigan during the early 1960s highlighted the various ways in which power structures and work design impact upon the health of employees. Badly designed jobs and lack of proper recognition in the workplace were clear contributors to physical and mental ill-health. Lack of any influence over where and when one carries out a task is a stress factor, which takes its toll on both mind and body. A number of clear routes, between the injustices of hierarchical business and the vulnerabilities of the human body, were becoming apparent. One of the most important of these was the discovery that stress leads to the cortisol hormone being released into the bloodstream, hardening the arteries and increasing the risk of heart attack. Despite the high-profile obsession with executive burn-out, this form of stress is far more common for those lacking power or status at work.

Read the full article "You Must Be Happy: What the Commercialization of Feelings Does to Workers" at The Atlantic.