Gilles Arnaud, Professor of Organizational Psychology at ESCP Europe, and psychoanalyst Roland Guinchard have studied the growing interest in professional fulfillment that, according to them, elicits what they define as the “Desire for work”. Here is a summary of their research. 

Simple questions such as “Can we be happy at work?”, “Can we do what we want at work?”, “Can we do what we love?” nowadays increasingly challenge the desire that work arouses. The urgency of this concern is sometimes manifest in  certain surveys1 as well as in the keen current interest for executive coaching and personal development. Yet, it appears that despite its massive current impact, the desiring dimension of work is largely underestimated or evaded by management theory or practice, and by the field of work analysis in general.

We have therefore considered it necessary to make desire as conceptualized by psychoanalytic theory the focus of a reflection on meaning in professional life, in order to specify how this desire takes part in the relationship between a person and their work. Work may carry meaning, but not necessarily the meaning we have in mind. In several of our works based on research and experience, we have introduced and theorized a new psychologically and existentially fundamental notion, that of the “desire for work”. Beyond work’s economic, social, political, anthropological or historical nature, this notion highlights its fundamental capacity of both revealing and concealing unconscious individual desire, that we will refer to as Desire with a capital D.

Work as the object of desire

All human beings have an instinctual drive towards action and wish fulfillment, defined since Freud under various forms (self-preservation, mastery, sublimation, poweract etc.) along with libidinal drives. This basic drive develops in the early years of human life and turns into a desire for action and fulfillment that translates into a psychic process of constructing an “object”-in the Freudian sense, correlative to the drive- meant to constantly represent the individual as the subject of its desire. It is the force of desire that fuels and drives this never-ending quest that we will call the desire for work. Essentially, this desire revolves around the idea that working has an interest in itself, as long as the individual can find and construct the object of their desire through it. This kind of work, both in terms of inner process and object, is what we all commonly refer to, often inadvertently for that matter, when we speak about work as about something personal: “my job”, “my work”, “my 9 to 5”, etc.

From a socio-economic standpoint, work is also a prominent issue as well as an external constraint that is unnatural to us (as Wallon and Meyerson stated): we have to work– a commandment backed up by rational evidence, such as the need to survive. This social phenomenon is also recalled by common expressions such as “looking for a job”, “getting a position” or “being called to duty” and it is the basis for all managerial approaches, from Taylorism to participative management: originally, work does not belong to the employees, it belongs to the business, State or organization that employs them. Many employees are easily and willingly persuaded of this fact because it is so easy to mistake the laborious psychic process we have described for its visible material manifestation: the fact of occupying a position.

The outcome is a fundamental- and unyielding discrepancy between work as a personal issue, seen as a permanent expression of personal desire, and work as an external constraint, imposed by the job market, the company, etc. These two diverging outlooks on work were analyzed by the clinic of work and activity, although at a different level and on different psychological bases. A distinction was drawn between the personal and interpersonal levels of the job. Sooner or later however, a connection is bound to appear, perhaps in the afterthought, between the individual and work as an external constraint.

Generally speaking, from a clinical point of view, this connection turns out, except on rare occasions, to be doomed to failure. This failure does however allow a sufficient working order of the business and professional life in general, based, on the one hand, on shared ignorance (amongst managers, executives, employees and trade unions) in regards to the instinctive urge behind work that turns work into the object of Desire, and, on the other hand, on the emphasis on substitute motivational factors that has the virtue of defining what we work for: money, contacts, status, recognition, etc.

We refer to a sufficient working order because observation of working-life demonstrates broadly that these ersatz desires are indeed just enough to establish a humdrum and unsatisfactory situation in our daily routine, and this can even temporarily generate superficial motivation among the workers. But at what cost? That of recurring or existing boredom at work, even in the guise of activism, and, worse still, as the cause of depression and other work-related disorders.

Henceforth, individuals will only be able to express this unfulfilled desire, met only by imperfect substitutes, through the gaps in management issues and the company will have to face the desperate challenge of rekindling their motivation through a succession of management fashions and fads aiming to make or maintain imposed work as sufficiently desirable to employees. Social aspects such as the historical constraints of societal organization were the first to “estrange” work as an instinctual drive from us (the confiscation phenomenon) and management has further taken it away with its various attempts at renewing and recycling the ersatz it offered to satisfy our desire (the substitution phenomenon).

Psychoanalytically speaking, this managerial logic consists in constantly diverting the Subject to an object (higher salary, more promotions, career opportunities, feelings of belonging, etc.), in certain cases to the point of reducing the worker to the level of a product. The goal, whether conscious or not, is to make this object desirable in and of itself, even though the expression of this desire is forbidden or prevented. These ersatz desiderata tend to define the work process and its desirability based on “things” that allow people to feel at ease with their aspirations (one of the most difficult things to do), but in fact estrange them from the real source of this desire. This is maybe why employees seem intent on wanting to find again what they are working for.

This deception associated with work recalls the repression or enslavement of libido that the capitalist system has prompted, by transforming these yearnings into automatic needs through production and trade. Freudo-Marxist criticism condemned this system in the ’60s and ’70s. The process of alienation we will describe here may appear akin to this criticism in its form (although more focused on the professional aspect), but is in fact radically different in its content. While previous criticism addressed the manifold random yearnings of a spontaneous libido, referring to the individual as a “desiring machine” (Deleuze and Guattari), our analysis will focus on the unconscious and structural Desire brought about by language, associated with the Subject’s individual identity, even in the workplace. The goal of previous criticism was to openly express desires that ran contrary to work (as Marcuse tried to do), whereas our comparatively modest goal is to release the desire for work from its inhibitions.

Desire for work and its impact

We have defined the modus operandi of the desire for work as a unique set of meaningful conscious and unconscious elements (words, images, representations, etc.) that make up our connection to work. These elements condition our career, our relationship with the organization and with the economical environment, as well as our professional interactions.

This definition calls for three important sets of comments:

 1/ We must insist on the importance of Desire in this configuration: these meaningful elements gradually come together in different ways and take on a free individual expression that can manifest itself through inhibition, boredom, idleness or laziness as well as through dynamism, motivation and commitment. The inclination to work, unlike the desire for work, is only a clear manifestation of a desiring configuration that was favorable to it at a given moment.

2/ As previously noted, the desire for work turns work into an inner object, which from a psychoanalytical standpoint becomes the target of a specific drive unknown to the Subject. Numerous clinical studies confirm this: we entertain intense and ambivalent emotional ties with our work (we are either crazy about our job or we loathe it) and it’s when this object is lacking, as in situations of unemployment, that it generally takes on most importance and finds itself named as an object of desire. Constantly recreating this object, rather than wanting to acquire it (i.e. by having “a good position”) reveals certain subjects’ peculiar rapport to the desire to work that we will call “oeuvre”. Performing an “oeuvre” at work means actually feeling that our action is connected to our Desire, that it is both within us and beyond us. Going from work to the “oeuvre” requires identifying one’s desire for work beforehand.

3/ Conversely, most management problems originate from things which hinder the subjects’ natural connection with work, and prevent the desire for work from expressing itself. The first example we will quote is the fear instilled in us by this disturbing question: “what is my Desire?” Everyone will accept the saving grace of liberating desire, while at the same time intuitively fearing that their own lives would be radically transformed, or worse, becoming absolutely convinced that the position acquired would be demanding, disenchanting, devoid of narcissistic desire and of all illusion of almightiness, in other words, simply human, all too human. It may not be common knowledge, but it’s easy to sense that this desire can end up consuming us. Minding it implies a certain form of courage that some may refer to as masochism. Inquiring into the nature of desire (in order to find what we really want in this world) requires constant focus in order to be consistent with this desire and the overall outcome is not very attractive: lucidity, giving up limitless bliss, caring about others more than about oneself, etc. All completed psychoanalytic treatment announces this peaceful but active outcome in a world of small accomplishments but no great “jouissance”. And it is particularly hard to completely relinquish “jouissance”. Therein lies the problem.

The complexity and the ambiguity underlying this desire require in-depth knowledge into the mechanism whereby a subject psychically constructs their rapport with work and can help identify the theoretical and clinical characteristics of the Desire for work.

Here are some concise examples:

● The desire for work originates -and supports itself- from an initially undifferentiated drive, which “extricates itself” from the Oedipus complex (where the capacity to love and work is born).

 ● Work, being the effect of this drive, has a triple role : it allows an individual (1) to express and impress their desire, (2) to maintain a link with reality and (3) to create a symbolic order.

● The desire for work manifests itself through four respective vehicles: a flaw in the father figure (the paternal debt), an ideal of grandeur (the megalomaniac dream), the need to exert oneself (the labor fantasy) and the will to control actions or objects (the hatred of desire)2.

Within a more pragmatic scheme, we may note that ignoring the desire for work can only lead to its misuse:

● by the human subject, who overlooks the extent to which s/he is compelled to sell his/her desire short for a mere work contract3 and to bear the psychological implications thereof;

 ● by the social partners (trade unions, management), who partake of endless negotiations around the idea of need and due to a common repression of work as desire (apparent even in the debates on unemployment and retirement);

 ● by managers, who constantly strive to “rally their troops” with all kinds of more or less respectable means (in the main, as previously mentioned, that work remains external to man’s desire), furthermore to little avail and at a high economic cost. However, if work is to be eventually recognized as the true object of a desire, then it is futile to restore the motivation-to-work from square one (since this particular desire, as we have already mentioned, is indelible, even if it can be concealed or put on hold).

There is a genuine need to release this desire for work, which will allow management to free up supplementary scope for action (for example, regarding the supervision of occupational retraining, flexible working hours or even the management of problems linked to practical work, socio-psychological mental health risks), even if they have to face up to the fact of having access to an essentially unconscious reality. An additional issue for us to consider will be inquiring into certain management practices embracing work as a ever appealing force (an “analytically correct system of management” to a certain extent). If one is not simply made for work, but more precisely to articulate one’s desire for work, the research that we have so forth conducted on psychoanalytically-oriented coaching may open further horizons of investigation.

Translation : Gilles Arnaud and Roxana Pantazi

Pr. Gilles Arnaud (ESCP Europe)

Gilles Arnaud is Professor of Organizational Behavior at ESCP Europe Paris Campus. He holds a Master in I/O Psychology, a PhD in Management Science from Toulouse University (in the field of organizational psychodynamics) and a French accreditation to supervise doctoral research. He has a strong interest in the application of psychoanalysis, especially Lacanian theory, to organization studies, work psychology and business. His other areas of interest include epistemological issues in social science, qualitative and clinical research methods, and critical management studies in a psychodynamic perspective. His research work has appeared in books and in a range of French and international academic journals. Moreover, Gilles Arnaud currently serves on the editorial board of Organization Studies, Management Decision, the Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Frontiers in Psychoanalysis and Neuropsychanalysis, as well as on the board of several French reviews. He is also a member of the Laboratoire de Changement Social (Research Centre for Social Change, University of Paris Diderot), a board member of the CIRFIP (International Centre for Research, Training and Intervention in Psycho-sociology) and a former board member of ISPSO (International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations).  

RESEARCH INTERESTS : Psychosociology / Psychoanalysis / Organizational Behavior

INSTITUTION : ESCP Europe, Campus de Paris


À l’écoute du désir de travail 
G. Arnaud et R. Guinchard, in Le travail, un défi pour la GRH, ANACT 2008. 
Psychanalyse du lien au travail 
R. Guinchard et G. Arnaud, Masson, 2011. 


  1. In particular, Christian Baudelot and Michel Gollac’s 2003 survey on happiness at work and the more recent Radio France survey “What kind of work do we want?” carried out on its listeners last year (published in January 2012 and coordinated by Jan Krauze). 
  2. These points are soon to be included in a book which is currently still being written.
  3. These are Bettelheim’s ideas, echoing Freud’s concepts on work: “In our society, many workers choose their professions by neurotic inclination rather than by their natural calling. What is worse, this last point is often not taken into consideration, since what the workers feel like doing is dissociated from the necessity of earning a living. This leads to a dangerous psychological contradiction. A contradiction which undermines self-respect, prevents man from taking pleasure in the job to which he devotes the major part of his time and deprives him of the feeling that he is doing something important and meaningful.”
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