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Pathological Fixation on Work

by Holger Heide Monday, Sep. 04, 2006 at 9:06 AM

Work mania-voluntarily-has become social normality.. We have largely internalized the norms of the work society. In other words, we are susceptible to work mania.


Must Germans work more? The German sociologist Holger Heide says the human relation to work is wrong. Work mania has – voluntarily – become social normality.

[This interview published in: die tageszeitung, 6/24/2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web.]

taz: Everyone says we need more work. But that people have long been addicted to work is described as a problem.

Holger Heide: In factories, employees are under pressure: in the sense of stress, intercollegial stress and mobbing. The state of health of workers worsens despite the statistically demonstrable decline in the rate of absenteeism – on account of the high unemployment. Something is not right with the human relation to work. This is caused first of all by outward pressure. Businesses adjust to the increasing pressure of competition on the world market. However outward pressure is not a complete explanation. We have largely internalized the norms of the work society. In other words, we are susceptible to work mania.

You call work mania a national sickness. In fact, the term “dependent employee” also points to a drug addiction. Is a vaccine in sight?

Administering a medicine can heal a few sicknesses. Usually the symptoms are merely suppressed. Even more important, work mania is an artificial social normality. At most, “excesses” are registered as alarming and “undesirable side-effects”: high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, circulatory problems, back pain and many other sufferings that worry every company doctor.


Work mania is a pathological fixation on work. An evasion of unbearable feelings unconsciously underlies this mania as with other manias. I “plunge” into work on account of the high social acceptance of work. However the opposite reaction is also common. Having to perform can become so intense that one can fall into a state of almost complete work inhibition. Colleagues and family members often recognize the characteristics of addiction when the affected isolate themselves and have no time or interest in anything beside work.

One can break ecstasy, schnapps and heroin. Earning a living seems different. Does the work-sick person have possibilities of becoming healthy?

Breaking is not health. As with heroin, healing of mental sickness is ultimately crucial. Doing a job that brings sickness and death cannot be justified by referring to “livelihood.”

Was everything different or better in the past? Do you judge the productivity advances negatively?

We must speak about the term “productivity.” What is the point of constantly increasing productivity? Recall the sentence of John Stuart Mill that is part of classical English sociology: “Whether all the mechanical inventions have relieved the daily toil of some human beings is dubious.” He said, technical and economic progress is always passed off as progress of individuals or humanity. In the phase of the industrial revolution, this “progress” has always had an extremely destructive effect on a part of humanity. This misunderstanding that everything was very terrible in the past should be cleared away. The notion that one has more free time today than in the past is simply false. Still we have to start from what exists now. I must discern what is good for me. When I notice, going to work twelve hours a day is demanded of me – I even demand it of myself – and contacts to the family are broken off or heart problems appear, then I must say: something is wrong. What are central are existential problems, not more money.

What is your opinion of the “happy unemployed” and its concept “Why should I kill myself?”

This is certainly a popularization that is not completely wrong. It offers a possibility for discussing the term “work,” first of all for those who are unemployed and massively exposed to the immediate pressure of stigmatization. They conclude: Unemployment is not desirable for us but we can use the time we have now to our advantage. This would take away a part of the stress from the world of work. Those who have work must grapple with the same questions and understand that solidarity is not simply a warm-hearted sympathy. Rather this society has a fundamental problem. To escape the addicted society, we need new solidarian forms of individuality and collectivity beyond “representation of interests” and “politics.”

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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 3 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
mania? Le ' dog Monday, Sep. 04, 2006 at 9:33 AM
oh and did I mention robery and extortion? Le ' dog Monday, Sep. 04, 2006 at 9:39 AM
"Work Ethic" is a misnomer TW Monday, Sep. 04, 2006 at 4:18 PM

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