We gotta get out of this place . . . if it’s the last thing we ever do!” The words of the old Animals song wail through your mind after a particularly unpleasant conversation with one of your coworkers. Retreating to your cubicle, you imagine yourself magically entering the green pastures of your screen saver and dancing off toward the bright blue sky, away from here, imprisoned in a job that suits you about as well as a dog house suits a canary. But instead, you start clicking your way through the forty- odd e-mails that accumulated while you were having the unpleasant conversation.
Meanwhile, you brace yourself for the next attack. What will it be? Someone from Accounting calling to say you did your expense report wrong and must do the whole thing over? Your boss’s partner demanding information ASAP for a project that doesn’t have to be done for at least another six months? Or that neat- freak colleague making sardonic remarks about the piles of papers on your desk?
You glance around your cubicle for comfort, but your eyes meet only an inorganic desert of gray, white, and beige— they yearn for something green, natural hardwood floors, or a colorful painting. Machines beep and arguments buzz beyond the flimsy half walls. There’s a crick in your neck that refuses to go away no matter what you do, your legs itch for a good run in the park, and you can feel your brain cells dying in your head. Why did you bother to go to college if this was where you were going to end up? Most of all, you long for good old unconditional love, for someone in your workplace with whom you can share your joys, gripes, and great ideas who won’t ever give you that I-can’t-believe- how- unprofessional- you’re- being look.
Oh, yes, you know you’re lucky to have work at all in today’s economy, that millions of unemployed would love to have your job, but the fact remains: You’d give anything not to have to fl ush away enormous chunks of your life typing nonsense into a plastic box when your real passion is playing the saxaphone, quilting, writing novels, climbing rocks, or taking care of your own kids. So far, you’ve managed to survive by telling yourself that you just have to “get through the day,” but you wonder how much longer you can go on this way, living always for fi ve o’clock, for Friday night, for the day when you can go back to school, marry someone rich, retire, or do what ever else will take you out of the offi ce world once and for all.
The weird thing is, everyone around you seems perfectly happy. Your coworkers smile and make squeaky- clean small talk, never say no to the boss, rarely take lunch breaks, and seem to fi nd fi lling out forms in an online system that constantly spits out error messages fascinating. At times you suspect that you’re working with some new, updated brand of Stepford wives who’ve been adjusted to fit the office scene rather than the home and come in both genders. Don’t they realize that there’s a whole wonderful world out there that they’re missing? Is there something the matter with them, or something the matter with you?
In truth, it’s probably neither. Human beings are an extremely variable species, and just as some people are made healthier and others sick by eating shellfish, individuals have different levels of tolerance for an office world that was not designed for human health or happiness but for productivity. That world has never been ideal for Homo sapiens, who didn’t start out in cubicles. And in the early twenty- first century, twisted out of shape by the unregulated, runaway market forces of what former secretary of labor Robert B. Reich calls supercapitalism, that world has become increasingly hazardous to the mental and physical health of all of us, sometimes in ways we’re not even aware of.
While some folks love their jobs, countless others experience the office situation as unnatural, undemo cratic, ungenerous, and unrelenting. Unnatural because office work involves confinement to a closed, mostly inorganic environment; the wearing of neckties and high heels instead of clothes made for human comfort; and superfi cial interchanges instead of genuine conversations. Undemo cratic because there are no elections for those in charge, and exercising any of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights may put one’s “pursuit of happiness” in jeopardy. Ungenerous because today’s lower- status office job provides the employee with only mediocre pay and benefits, minimal job security, insufficient vacation time, and little genuine food for the senses, intellect, emotions, or ego. Unrelenting because demands on office workers have become ever more unrealistic as organizations have downsized personnel without downsizing their missions. In such formidable circumstances, how you feel about your own office job may depend mostly on how well you’re able to tolerate artifi ciality, tyranny, deprivation, and stress.
For as long as offices have existed, some folks have fit more comfortably into them than others. Some people are naturally orderly, compliant, attentive, goal- driven, detail- oriented, uncritical, even- tempered, and conforming. Office work, especially clerical or administrative work, suits these people pretty well, though some aspects may still affect them more negatively than they realize. Others are programmed to think for themselves, daydream, feel feelings, look at the big picture, question authority, empathize, love the outdoors, and create big paper piles and big ideas. These people are almost guaranteed to hate office work. Still others— probably most of us— have some traits of both types.
As professional or ga niz er Julie Morgenstern points out in Never Check E-mail in the Morning, when problems occur, workers tend to ask themselves, “Is it me or is it them?” In many cases, I believe that it’s neither. Instead, the problem is it— the bizarre fun house of distorting mirrors that I call the office world, though they, most of whom are unaware of it, will often try to make you think it’s you. Don’t let them succeed. If you dread coming to work every day, it’s most likely because present- day offices can be tough places for human beings to be, especially sensitive, intelligent, creative, freedom- loving people like you.
While the obvious solution if you’re an offi ce misfit is to get yourself onto a different career track, this may not always be possible, at least not right now, when the economy is hurting and unemployment rates are high. During hard times, along with unemployment goes “misemployment,” people having to take what ever jobs they can get even if they don’t suit their par tic u lar talents, interests, education, or experience. Some misemployed office workers may be just starting out, waiting for their “real” careers to begin, while others may be grieving the loss of a more rewarding profession or a business they owned and loved. While unemployment causes pain, so does misemployment, though workers lucky enough to have a decent- paying job may feel they have no right to complain.
If you’re one of the millions of offi ce misfits struggling to adapt to life in a cubicle, this book is for you. If you find “how to succeed” books superficial and feel that there’s more to life than outsmarting someone into giving you a corner office and a longer, more stressful workday, you’re in the right place. The focus of this book is not success but well- being, though obviously if you feel better, you’re likely to also be more successful if you want to be. My purpose is not to show you how to do more faster so as to climb higher and higher, but to show you how to feel healthier, happier, and more connected in the job you have right now, for however long you stay in it. You may be looking for an escape route, but meanwhile, learning to make the best of your current job will help you to enjoy future, more satisfying work situations all the more.
Excerpted from Making Peace With Your Office Life by Cindy Glovinsky.
Copyright © 2010 by Cindy Glovinsky.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.