‘Office’ is now the code word for our low morale

In a recent episode of TV’s “The Office,” the boss, played by Steve Carell, asks one of his staff to marry him. The proposal is gleefully orchestrated by the office workers. They hold candles and play along on the romance. They even cheer as the bride-to-be says yes.

And then Carell announces, at this happiest moment, that he is moving to Colorado to help his beloved with her ailing father.

And the office is stunned.

There is very little resembling a real office in that story – and not just because the actors are funnier than us. These days, offices have become places of resentment, not camaraderie, of dissatisfaction, grumbling, muted anger.

And if the boss left, there would be cheering, not tears.

A new study suggests that more than a third of Americans are hoping to leave their job to find a different one this year. A third? That same study suggests their bosses think the employees are satisfied.

That spells a disconnect.

But you don’t need a study to tell you that.

The stress on the survivors

Everywhere you look in this country, people are stressed, annoyed, overworked and angry. Seemingly everyone has a story of wages being slashed, benefits cut and responsibilities tripled. “There were five of us on the sales force. Now I’m the only one.” “I haven’t had a raise in five years. They keep telling me there’s no money.” Co-workers are laid off and their load dumped on survivors who are made to feel they’re lucky to have a job.

Much of this, of course, is blamed on the recession. But I’m starting to wonder if that word isn’t becoming a bit convenient for certain workplaces. Let’s face it. Corporations – especially big ones – saw a lot they liked in the economic downturn: They were able to shed workers, trim benefits, force a leaner, meaner company – all in the name of surviving the global market shrinkage.

But this past week, a pair of headlines caught my eye. One, from USA TODAY, read, “CEO pay soars while workers’ pay stalls.” It detailed how, yet again, CEOs were being lavished with incredible pay packages, some up 140% or more from last year. Median CEO pay jumped 27% in 2010.

How’s that compare with your paycheck?

Now, you can say, “Those people deserve it. They helped turn the company around.” Well, didn’t the lower-level workers, too? Besides, putting your marker at the company’s lowest point and getting showered with money when the world bounces back is a little like boarding a roller coaster at the bottom, stopping atop the hill, then getting out and bragging about how brave you are.

The agony of the market

The second disturbing headline ran in the Wall Street Journal. “Subprime Bonds Are Back.” Subprime? Isn’t that a toxic word? On par with Armageddon? Subprime?

Yes, subprime. Apparently, the story claimed, the appetite for risk is back in the very same mortgage bets that triggered the financial crisis in the first place.

Do you have that appetite? No. Because if you’re the average man or woman, you have no money for speculative investments. The thing these two headlines have in common is a thriving stock market. And I dare say, the stock market is doing better than you are.

It had its best first quarter since the millennium – this despite terrible unemployment and strangling workplaces. And in many places, the market is all that matters. Stock price is the new god of business. It’s the way CEOs get rich and how new money gets shoveled in the kitty.

Sadly, you can have a nice stock price and a miserable place to work. And that seems to describe much of American business today.

I’d like to say bosses need to wake up. I’d like to say some bubble will burst. But I fear the new reality may well be that the top guys do well, the middle guys have no life because of a stressed work load, and the bottom guys are expendable.

That’s more typical of today’s American office. Few will help the boss in a romantic quandary. Few will cry if he says good-bye. But some may cheer.

Is that really the work world we want?

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/mitch.

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