When Unemployment Becomes a Disease | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 07.07.2002
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When Unemployment Becomes a Disease

An unemployment rate of four million is causing a big headache for the present German government. But for the unemployed, joblessness is more than a mere headache, say psychologists.


Take a number and wait until a job comes around

When Peter Reinhard lost his job he wasn’t all that upset at first. Spring was in the air and the trained clerical worker felt more like enjoying the few months of bright sunshine and mild summer evenings than sitting in a stuffy office.

"In a way I was aware that for some time I'd be a sort of social parasite, but that didn't really matter to me then," Reinhard said. "I just wanted to relax and have a good time."

But he quickly found out that relaxing didn’t go well with being unemployed. Friends and relatives began asking him what he planned to do next. And as the pressure to find a job mounted, he began sending out resumes and letters.

Each came back accompanied by rejection letters. He soon had so many of them, he could have wallpapered his house. It was then that his ego started to show the first cracks.

"When you write application after application and you keep getting the same standard letters, well, sure, there comes the day when you start to get indifferent," Reinhard said. "And when you find yet another big envelope in your post box, it gets even worse. After a while you aren't even frustrated anymore. "

The reaction is a common one among the unemployed, say psychologists. The frustration of not working coupled with constant rejection by potential employers can have a debilitating effect on job-seekers. With around 4 million currently without a job and company after company filing for bankruptcy, the situation doesn’t promise to get better any time soon.

"The unemployed lose self-esteem rapidly," says Eva Pohl, who works at an employment center. "I've seen truly self-confident people go through amazing changes within, say, a year or two. A lot of them lose all hope when they become aware of their situation and the unemployment rate."

As bad as suffering a violent crime

Every rejection letter the postman brings aggravates the situation even further, says psychologist Dirk Weller. In his research on the psychological strain of unemployment, Weller said he discovered a shocking parallel.

"The consequences of being unemployed are equally as severe as the trauma of being the victim of a violent crime," he said.

Both show typical victim-syndromes, such as depression, insomnia or restlessness. Often it's the key scenes like the day of the dismissal or especially frustrating job interviews that virtually become "burned" into peoples' minds.

These big events are then amplified by what psychologists call "micro traumata", namely the everyday frustrations that will burn like salt in the open wound of joblessness.

"In the beginning they all say, yeah, I'm gonna find a job, no problem," Pohl said. "But then, when they find they've already written some 30 applications, and they’re being turned down for each and every one of them, that's when they start to see that it's getting them down."

Especially those considered too old for the workplace - like Heinz Max. The 50-year-old was surprised to discover that with each year beyond the 50-year-mark, his "value" in Germany’s competitive job market dropped dramatically.

Always look on the bright side of life

One of the only ways to get out of this vicious circle is what psychologist Dirk Weller calls a "rehabilitation in a roundabout way", that is to try and let go and concentrate on the pleasant aspects of life. He knows from experience how hard it is to convince the unemployed that their value as a person does not depend on their wage alone.

But, says Weller, there still is hope.

"It's important to realize that there are people needed out there, that there are useful things for them to do, no matter whether they get paid or not," said Weller. "That could be doing something totally different, such as painting or taking care of children. And that way, often, the unemployed manage to find the energy to go out and find themselves a job."

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