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Workaholics and Burnout

by Peter Samol Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 at 5:07 AM

"Real life is unlived because one has traded oneself and everything one has for a promise of success and career that turns out to be nothing but a race without a goal or end."


By Peter Samol

[This article published in November 2012 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Demands are constantly growing in today’s world of work. Even though people already work dreadfully long hours, more output is always demanded of them. This has its cause in the process of endless value creation for its own sake in which people only gain their right to exist through work. At the same time they are replaced more and more by the use of technology. In this situation, only the most efficient remain in the job system to obtain their right to exist every day. Whoever cannot keep up any more is quickly in danger of being defeated in the selection process and finding himself in the corridors of employment offices or in poorly paid precarious employment. This constant threat spurs everyone to strenuous effort. This increases the general demands and the hamster wheel turns faster and faster. There is no foreseeable end to this development.

These circumstances obviously have effects on the attitudes of people to their work. One reaction consists in yielding to the greater demands. Some simply hope to reach a secure place before the output demands become impossible for them – whether “cushy jobs” of which there are fewer and fewer since they increasingly fall victim to technical rationalization and optimization of operational procedures or pensions. Others adapt affirmatively in the situation and seek their salvation in an absolute performance-orientation that they internalize. To keep in the occupational running, they become more efficient and hardworking while simultaneously repressing their weaknesses as much as possible or repressing the constant threat of their own decline. More and more they become generally controllable pliable persons in whom restlessness and driven existence become a basic state deeply anchored in their interior. Frequently it is a process of chronic self-surrender. The more energy is sacrificed to the performance demands, the less control they have for their own personal development and the less strength is left to resist further demands. Little by little one becomes food for the exploitation machine. At the end one does not live one’s own life any more but sacrifices everything to the inflated performance-demands and becomes a driven, surrendered and completely unfree person with maximum external adaptation and self-denial.


When this happens, one usually has a developed work addiction. In other words, one becomes a workaholic and seeks his acknowledgment in nothing but excessive work. Work addicts have completely internalized the unending overstrain. In Germany, there are 400,000 employed persons who suffer under a manifest work mania. This is one percent of all employed persons in Germany. In 2008 there were two- to three-hundred thousand (Mierke and Poppelreuter 2008). Work addiction is regarded as a sickness, a so-called “non-substance connected addiction.” Workaholics need the constant occupational stress together with extended working hours up to 100 hours a week and then take the work home – like junkies need stuff. On weekends, they constantly check their emails on their Smart Phones. When a book is read, it is an “exciting” specialist literature. On the rare vacations, programs are carried out that are overloaded with loud activities. One is always available. Workaholics are enthusiastic grinders and doers, understand stress and overwork as status symbols and as a rule are extremely competition-oriented. Whoever has time in their eyes is a loser.

Sooner or later relations to friends and one’s family break down through the excessive work orientation. Then one has no contacts any more outside work and as a workaholic is completely dependent on success. One has nothing else and is basically only a pure internalized pursuit of success. Therefore workaholics cannot stop their behavior. Rather they cannot even imagine being without work for even a moment. That is an addiction or mania. Breathers are full of anxiety for them. The flight into work is also an escape from inner emptiness that is first produced and maintained by the absolute concentration on work. Real life is unlived because one has exchanged oneself and everyone one has for a promise of success and career that turns out to be nothing but a race without a goal or end. Then there is no room any longer for anything other than this race. For that reason workaholics follow their path – until the health collapse occurs after 15 years. Then either the heart slows down or the mental state wanes. The latter often takes the form of a burnout.


Whoever understands overwork as a special distinction neglects his or her own needs and little by little abandons private life in favor of the job is a perfect burnout candidate. The term burnout was coined in 1974 by the American psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberg and describes the health consequences of enormous occupational overstrain. Freudenberg speaks of burnout when great overstrain continues for months or years with no telling how things will turn out and leading to a state of exhaustion that is not improved even after a long vacation. Burnout is usually an insidious process. The Big Bang first occurs at the end. The affected seems to function very normally until just before the collapse. In most cases, a burnout is manifest in one or two tendencies. 1) Either in the moment when the affected recognize they cannot gain any proper acknowledgment for their engagement – when a desired promotion does not happen or the superiors obviously do not appreciate self-sacrificing conduct. 2) Or the workaholics suddenly breakdown the moment when they notice they cannot recover from the permanent stress. This means the few who can export their products must keep down their costs, especially costs for luxuries like caring for the sick, seniors and other boarders who cannot contribute to economic success. Thus the battle over competitiveness can only lead to a further downward spiral that has long been underway.

It is hardly comforting that the temporary winners of this competition can hardly enjoy their victory. Who will ultimately buy their products on the islands of capitalist prosperity that become fewer and fewer and smaller and smaller?


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