Self-help books and articles have drawn the public’s attention to a recent and growing affliction: “addiction to work.” They present people who eventually suffer breakdowns mainly due to their grueling professional lives and are then classified by psychologists as “workaholics.” The reader is additionally informed of a range of symptoms for this strange illness: the workaholic employee or manager lives only to work, puts in huge amounts of overtime, never takes a weekend off, cares about nothing else, neglects family and friends, and sees every moment of spare time as a distraction or disturbance. It’s undeniable that there are such types who work until they drop and push their bodies as much as their minds to an extreme. But given all this, what leads them to think of nothing more than calling a psychiatrist? The concept “workaholism” says: something is wrong with these people – or, maybe better, in these people – a psychic defect that drives them to pathological, self-destructive behavior. When psychologists advance this diagnosis, they can always make it sound credible with a simple reference: this is about “personal tragedies,” the vast majority are not afflicted by this “addiction,” the norm is very different. Against this, it should be said: it’s just normality, ordinary working life, which encourages people to throw themselves into work to such an extent that it drives some people to get themselves “addicted” to – of all things – work.
It is clear right from the start that it is not the specific, concrete work which so enthralls the “addict.” For artists or other people who are lucky enough to be able to make their hobby a profession, it may happen that they enjoy their work so much that they forget about the time, but the “workaholic” is guaranteed to not be in love with making phone calls or doing spreadsheets. Like all his co-workers, he has to deal with demands that he has not chosen himself, but that the company has put in front of him. The company wants to see these requirements performed in a way that guarantees its success – that is, even once a service is rendered, it is never satisfied, the point is to constantly increase the level of performance. This can be compelled in an extremely simple way: The company positions people against each other, has them compete against each other. To get them to go along with this, the company – again very simply – uses a lever: it holds up a reward which only one employee gets and not the other – the success of one is the failure of the other. In such companies, the question is constantly on the agenda who among the employees will climb “up” the ladder, who can draw attention to themselves for a higher position with more pay, but the whole thing also goes in the reverse direction: Which employee will survive the next round of downsizing? Nowadays, every company wants to have its own “corporate identity” and special “team spirit” – the banal yet menacing substance of these concepts, which all contain nothing but one commonality the company compels, is always the same: get your finger out of your ass, if you commit yourself in the right way to the company’s goals, something could be in it for you!
It might be completely normal that employees accept the competition organized by the company and everyone seeks to distinguish themselves, i.e. outdo the others – but it is incorrect anyway. Not because – as everyone gladly complains – that looks like “egoism” or “me first,” but because one calculates there on a “chance” that is toxic and has only one certain result: the success of the company. Obviously, everyone wants to “make something of himself” and “get ahead in life,” like the sayings go, and each one thinks it is up to him, and so sees himself as his means of success. The result is that everyone exerts them self, but it is entirely up to the discretion of the company what the exertion is worth. The company forces a comparison by competition on everyone, and that’s the simple reason nobody has the ability to decide this comparison for himself. Not only does the company fix all the conditions under which this competition takes place, it also quite freely decides on the basis of its calculations who it rewards and who it accordingly penalizes. The message the employee gets is: Then I just have to exert myself even harder. He makes the offer to the company: You can have even more command over me, demand even more of me. The human-moral consequence of this is that there are plenty of creeps who suck up to superiors and smear or pick on co-workers – “hostile work environment” is the catchphrase. Apart from that, the only thing that it leaves is the abiding proof that someone sees his real purpose in life as fulfilling the company’s requirements. The employees differ in how far they want to take this, but basically almost all of them are willing to adapt to the requirements. And the “workaholic” is then nothing more or less than the radical form of this willingness: a person who has completely committed to the possibility of his success in the competition, who lives only for this hope and puts everything else aside.
So it’s not true when psychologists maintain that frequent overtime, weekend shifts, always walking around with a cell phone and laptop, etc., would be clear symptoms for individual abnormal behavior, pathological deviance, or addiction. On the contrary: subordination under the requirements of the company is first of all the desired and, in general opinion, normal position. In this way, a certain degree of recklessness towards oneself and all the interests one has outside of work are checked off as natural, and the vague notion that there might be a conflict between one’s own interests and those of the company is extinguished. This is the reason for what psychologists then call “workaholism,” but these caring people don’t want to know anything about that. They make the diagnosis “workaholism” only if and when a person deviates from his normal routine by recklessly disregarding himself and verging on complete collapse. This is disturbing because the employee might no longer render his service and become a burden to the company’s health insurance policy. That’s the stupidity and brutality of the criterion under which the psychologist judges competitive work habits: The functions required by working life must be successfully fulfilled and, anyway, some just survive it and others don’t! A person makes himself into the means for the desired success and puts aside all other goals and his own needs and looks at them as a disturbance to the pursuit of this success, and the psychologist is quite sure that the reasons for this puzzling departure are not to be found in working life, but in the person who behaves in such a way. The psychologist attributes to him an insatiable desire for always-more-work which he calls an “addiction,” and this compulsive behavior quite clearly signals “deeper problems” that the person has with himself.
And then there is also his professional help. The psychologist turns the radical willingness of his patient to compete, his ambition, his desire to adapt, which finally causes him to break down, into an uncontrolled, pathological condition. Apparently, something is not right inside him, within his psychic life. To find what this is, the psychologist then has to urge the patient to look within. Once he gets the “workaholic” there by referring him to himself and his inner secrets, the world of work and the compulsion to compete are then mentioned as single “factors” among others, that is, as stress elements that can afflict an already unstable person. But as we said: one person endures it, the other just doesn’t ... So how about a “work group for workaholics anonymous”?
[Adapted and translated from radio broadcast by GegenStandpunkt]